TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – On a recent weekend in Orlando, Florida State’s cheerleading teams and Golden Girls dance team stepped off of the sidelines and into the spotlight for three days of competition at the Universal Cheerleaders Association’s national championships at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex.
After several rounds of stunts, pyramids, baskets and turns, each team emerged with improved results – some of which reached heights not seen at FSU in several years – as well as a drive to go even higher in the future.
The Golden Girls finished third nationally in the Jazz category, a six-spot improvement from a year ago, while all-girl cheerleading placed 11th (up from 12th) and co-ed 20th.
“We have made, in my eyes, amazing progress,” said Bonde Johnson, a junior co-ed cheerleader from Ledyard, Conn. “The skills we’ve developed as a team, they’re something that, my first year, I wouldn’t even have imagined. We’ve come a long way.”
Same goes for the Golden Girls, who entered the competition looking to reclaim their place as one of the nation’s preeminent dance teams.
The Golden Girls spent much of the late 2000s hovering near the top of the national rankings, but, by the time senior Abbey Lacaillade arrived as a freshman in 2014, felt they were in need of a rebuild.
That turnaround began at last year’s national championships, when the Golden Girls finished ninth in the country and, more importantly, built a renewed confidence for the year ahead.
They entered this year’s competition hoping for a top-five finish. But after the semifinal round, they found themselves fourth – and only one-tenth of a point behind third-place Arizona State.
At that point, their goal changed. Quickly.
“We were saying, ‘Let’s get fifth.’ That’s all we wanted was fifth,” Lacaillade said. “Then after semis, we were like, ‘OK, all we want is third.’
“We were so hungry for third. We could taste it.”
According to the judges, hunger, passion and intensity were the only things lacking from an otherwise challenging routine.
Safe to say that wasn’t an issue during finals. And the difference was reflected in two photos – one from the end of the semifinal dance, and the other from the final.
“Our faces are so much more intense in the finals,” Lacaillade said with a laugh. “Because we just wanted it, and you could tell.”
They got it.
Florida State finished third, behind only Ohio State and Minnesota.
“To be on both ends of the spectrum is very rewarding,” Lacaillade said. “And to have a chance to lead this team this year has been the greatest experience, to see the rise in the program.”
For FSU’s cheerleaders, meanwhile, the competition was the culmination of several weeks of practices – including time away from friends and family over Christmas break.
The Seminoles were graded on their technical and physical prowess, as well as perhaps the most integral aspect of their sport: leading a crowd in cheers.
And, like the Golden Girls, the cheerleaders can track their progress over the years. When junior Ali Goldberg made her first trip to nationals with FSU cheer, the Seminoles didn’t place at all. They jumped up to 12th a year ago and 11th in 2018, an achievement that sounds modest but that also hides the change in the program’s culture.
For instance: When the all-girls squad placed 12th last year, they were thrilled to have just landed in the finals.
A year later, the Seminoles took another step up in the final standings, but this time left with the nagging feeling that they could have done even better.
“This year we had the potential to stay in the top three, and we just didn’t execute it,” Goldberg said. “We could have done it, but some things went wrong.”
A lot more went right, though.
Johnson said that the collegiate cheering world is often divided into two categories: “Gameday schools” – think football games and pom poms – and “competition schools,” the kind that win championships.
Schools are often good at one or the other, but it’s rare to be among the best in both.
Johnson believes that, after their latest trip to nationals, the Seminoles can say that they are an exception to that rule.
“I think that we’re both,” he said. “We’re a good mixture of both.”
Added Goldberg: “We spend a lot of time cheering on other sports, which is our main priority. But this one weekend, we get to just focus on us and what we’re best at and what we’ve been working on all our lives.”