Stevens: Lobo Spirit Program Is Something To Cheer About!
Feb. 28, 2011
By Richard Stevens -- Senior Writer / Go Lobos.com
It is a Lobo commitment with maybe no equal in the University of New Mexico athletic department.
The activity begins full speed in July and breaks in April. It is a time commitment that includes community service, grade checks, weight lifting, fund raising, and at least three practice sessions a week from July to April.
And the Lobos who join the University of New Mexico Spirit Program seem to love every minute -- and every month of it.
"I think there are a lot of reasons someone joins a spirit program," said Tracy Denton, the Spirit Program Coordinator. "If you are on a spirit team, you probably love athletics in general and would be at the games anyway.
"Now, you are down there and you become part of the event. I think these athletes do it because they love the challenges of performing and getting better at it, and they love being part of the Lobo athletic community."
There probably is a misconception among sporting fans that members of spirit programs just grab their pompons, splash on a smile, and show up for the big game.
Not so. The members of these teams probably don't look at it as work because it is motivated by a passion. However, before you join one of Denton's teams, you had better have a solid grasp on time management, responsibility and work ethic.
"There is a lot of work that goes into it," said Lindsey Oliver, a member of the all-girl cheer squad. "We spend a lot of time in the weight room, with a workout plan, training to build ourselves up.
"We spend a lot of time outside games practicing and preparing. A lot goes into the athletic portion of being in cheerleading."
The games probably would be demanding enough. In the fall, the overlap in Lobo sports has Denton sending spirit teams -- including Lobo Louie and Lobo Lucy -- to football, volleyball, men's and women's soccer, and men's and women's basketball. You also practice about three hours a night at least three days a week.
If you are a Lobo cheer or dance team competing in the annual National College Championships, you might be practicing once or twice a day -- and still taking care of your other responsibilities, too.
It's not just fun and games. The UNM Spirit Program has completed more than 830 hours of community service since June of 2010.
"It's definitely a responsibility that we need to represent the university in the best way that we possibly can. That's our job," said Carin Malm, a Lobo Chaparral. "We are seen in the eyes of so many people and a lot of people look up to us. That's a big responsibility on your shoulders, but at the same time it's absolutely worth it because that's what we are here to do."
Denton's teams are seen at a lot of Lobo functions besides athletics. She said the program also tries to reach out to the community at least once a week.
This reaching out as an arm of UNM includes volunteer time given to the St. Jude Children's Research Hospital Up Til Dawn event and Give Thanks; Walk, the Relay for Life benefiting the American Cancer Society; the Boys & Girls Club Fun Day; the March of Dimes Walk; and the JDRF Walk.
These spirit leaders also have to hit the books. It takes a 2.0 to join one of the three spirit teams and it takes a 2.5 to remain on one. The program's student-athletes had a combined 3.04 GPA in the fall of 2010.
"The mission of our program is to first support the university and its athletic teams," said Denton, a former Lobo cheerleader (1992-96). "We are out in the community as role models to promote the ideas and philosophy of UNM.
"We get a lot of support from the athletic department. We have access to the Student Success Center. We can use the weight room and our members are required to go to the weight room. We have access to the training room and are treated as athletes."
Denton first came to the UNM Spirit Program in 1996 as a coach. She became the Spirit Coordinator in June of 2008. Her staff consists of Jeanine Gallegos, Rob White and volunteer assistant, Brian Denton (husband).
This school year the Spirit Program has a 26-member, All-Girl Cheer Team, a 20-member Co-ed Cheer team, a 20-member Chaparral Dance Team and the Lobo mascots, Louie and Lucy.
There has been much national debate lately about whether spirit teams should be recognized -- and fully funded -- as athletic teams. The New Mexico Activities Association decided, "yes," for New Mexico high schools. It's an interesting debate.
The activity obviously is athletic, demanding and not without the risk of injury. It is governed by rules and there is annual collegiate championships held in January. This activity might not have the head-to-head battles like football, baseball, or basketball, but neither does NCAA gymnastics or swimming.
Denton says because the competition is not required and is not every week, she isn't pushing for anyone to change the status of her teams. "These kids are athletes and they work very hard and they are treated as athletes," she said. "From our perspective, we aren't a sport because we don't compete regularly."
The Lobos might not compete regularly, but there are hotbeds around the country where All-Star cheerleading programs are just as competitive as club teams in basketball, soccer, baseball, softball, etc.
The Lobo Spirit Program athletes practice, lift weights and condition themselves to be fit for their routines. This is not an easy gig.
"The athleticism in cheerleading has seen a huge jump," said Denton. "There is more gymnastics, more tumbling, more lifting and the rules have become stricter to keep it safe.
The main reward of being on a Lobo spirit team is being part of UNM athletics. Denton also dangles another carrot in front of her squad.
"Our focus at UNM is not on the national competition," said Denton. "We focus on Lobo tradition, supporting the teams, community service, and trying to make the university a better place. We do our job at home first.
"But if we do everything well during the year, our reward is to send them to the college championships. We also have to make sure the teams are prepared to compete at that level. If we send them to nationals, we want them to feel good about themselves and feel they belong."
What that means is extra time commitment -- more practice.
If you are interested in becoming a member of the UNM Spirit Program, the tryouts for the 2011-12 season are April 15-17.
"We aren't just looking for talented people," said Denton. "We want them to be good people, responsible people, who we are confident will go out and represent the university in the right way."