A Day In The Life Of A Penn State Cheerleader
Next to the football players, the Penn State cheerleaders are some of the most recognizable figures on game day. Their classic uniforms and timeless chants only add to the unique atmosphere that is a football game in Happy Valley.
Though the performance looks flawless and easy, it isn’t without intense preparation. For senior captain Jordan Hinkle and freshman Hannah Denk, that preparation begins a week before game day.
“We practice four days a week and have two morning workouts. We are very busy,” Hinkle said.
Coach Curtis White discussed the details of practice. “They work a lot on stunting, start going over the fight songs, any unusual game day performances and at the beginning of the season their role in the pregame activities.”
Practice is crucial to ensuring the safety of the stunts performed on Saturday. The team must have all their stunts cleared at practice before game day.
Saturday mornings mean an early start for Hinkle and Denk. Every weekend, cheerleaders are assigned to different pregame events. These include pep rallies, the team greet, and appearances at the Student Bookstore and the President’s tailgate. For a noon game, this means the team has to be in uniform and at events as early as 8 a.m. The team must be at the stadium an hour prior to kick-off, but even the walk there isn’t boring.
“You have to leave super early to take pictures. On the walk to the stadium I may get stopped 10 times or more. We never turn away pictures,” Denk said.
As the team takes the north end zone for warm-ups, the anticipation builds. Warm-ups are crucial for any team, but especially for cheerleaders who spend hours on their feet and have to maintain a high energy level.
Coach White attributed that high energy level to the events the team participates in. “They’re naturally high energy people…but a lot of the events are fun, which keeps them motivated.”
Once warm-ups finish, the most exciting part of the day begins — running out of the tunnel.
“It’s the best part of the game. It was so overwhelming at first. The first time you run out the atmosphere is crazy,” Denk said.
Following the pre-game routine, the 40 cheerleaders are split into two teams. There is an all-girls team as well as a co-ed squad.
During the game, the team runs through a pre-set list of cheers and stunts they practiced throughout the week. In the case of good weather, which is sometimes sparse in Happy Valley, the stunts are no problem. But once it begins to rain, shoes get wet and slippery and create safety concerns, which is why you typically won’t see a lot of stunting when conditions are poor.
This season, the team was more active on the field than they ever have been. “We did more this year during timeouts. We would go out on to the field and do a pyramid. That was nerve-wracking for sure. We definitely did more elite stuff this year,” Hinkle said.
The Penn State crowd makes the job of being a cheerleader easy. “Penn State is great about keeping the energy of the crowd up the entire time,” Coach White said. “We are lucky we have a lot of different crowd interactions we can do. We have the cowbell, the ‘We Are’ chant, Nittany Lion push-ups, and others.”
At halftime, Hinkle and Denk return to the locker room they share with the Lionettes. This is their chance to fix any make-up or hair as well as eat lunch. Although a break is nice, the team only has eight minutes to relax before they return to the field.
This is when the switching of teams occurs. “A lot of people don’t notice when we switch, unless someone is looking for you,” noted Hinkle.
During the second half business continues as usual. A smaller group of cheerleaders travels to the club suites to perform mini pep rallies.
At the end of the game, the cheerleaders link arms and sing the Alma Mater with the rest of the stadium. They then quickly transition into making a tunnel for the players to ring the victory bell.
Even after the game the duties of a cheerleader aren’t necessarily over. Depending on the fall sports schedule, some of the younger team members cheer at the women’s volleyball matches.
“When you walk from the stadium to Rec Hall you have to guard the lion. This is the only time we ever turn away pictures,” Denk said.
At the end of a long day, Coach White is always proud of his team; not only how they perform on the field, but off as well. “They’re very academic kids, I’ve even had some that have gone to medical school that still keep in touch.”
Hinkle, a senior, will miss performing at Beaver Stadium. “Being out on the field, cheering in front of the fans, it’s not something a lot of people get to experience. It really goes by fast…It’s bittersweet for sure.”
Denk, who finished her first season with the team, hopes it doesn’t go by too fast. Being a Penn State cheerleader was a dream of hers since she was little girl.
“I dressed up as a Penn State cheerleader for Halloween when I was younger. I always dreamed of putting on the uniform. We practice a lot before you even get the chance to wear the uniform. Once you finally get to put it on the feeling is amazing,” Denk said.
When the team isn’t in the thick of its fall sports appearances, the cheerleaders prepare to compete at Nationals. This past January they placed fifth, their highest placing position in almost a decade.
Coach White spoke to the team’s accomplishment. “I knew we had talented team members. Being able to execute and hit the routine at Nationals was key though. I’m excited for our team members and for Penn State. The team worked hard to reach this level.”