After a 2-3 start to the 2016-17 season and three new coaches to the program, the Sacramento State STUNT team is in the hunt for a top-four spot at NCAA Division I nationals.
Sac State, which entered its final regular-season competition ranked fourth among 31 college teams, defeated Cal Poly Sunday by the score of 17-10. In order to qualify for nationals in Dallas, Texas from April 28-30, the Hornets must be ranked top four in the nation by the College STUNT Association.
“For us, it’s a good start to be ranked as high as we are,” Sac State co-head coach Maggie Steele said. “We just have to continue going as high as we can.”
Steele, a former STUNT athlete and 2014 graduate at Sac State, helped lead the Hornets to an 11-4 record. The team has fluctuated in its ranking during the past four competitions from third to sixth, and landing at its current fourth place spot as of press time.
“From then to now, the changes happen almost every practice to improve and change, and to make sure that we’re keeping the highest level on the performance floor,” Steele said.
Steele — who is in her first coaching season with the Hornets — isn’t the only addition to the coaching staff this year as James Blunk, a former Sac State cheerleader, and Vanessa Kitley joined the team this season.
“It’s different — Sierra College was lower-level, just starting out and growing,” Kitley said after coaching at Sierra College and Folsom High School. “High school’s still talented, but obviously the skill level at the collegiate level is much more.”
Apart from the addition of three new coaches, the team battled injuries throughout the season.
Sac State junior Gabie Vega, a three-year veteran on the team, said she was almost unable to participate this season due to a torn labrum she injured back in August.
“My main goal going into this season was trying to do my best and just being able to be out on the floor — even if I was doing something as basic as level-one tumbling,” Vega said.
Vega, one of the many athletes on the team who has suffered an injury, said this was her most important season to date because it was almost her last.
“I thought cheerleading was done for me and it’s been my life for 15 years,” Vega said.
Vega has made a full recovery and said she is pleased with the strides the team has taken to improve during this season.
“We had a rough start but I think that that’s only motivated us to work even harder … and now we’re really fired (up) to get where we need to be to get to that top four to go to nationals,” Vega said.
Sophomore Lindsey Herring, who was coached by former head coach Kori Thomas before she stepped down, said the transition from Thomas to the three new coaches has been challenging. Thomas helped lead the Hornets to a fourth place Division I finish in 2016.
“They definitely coach in very, very different ways,” Herring said. “Also, what’s hard is (Thomas) knew the sport a little bit better than Maggie did, but she’s picking it up really fast.”
However, the combination of Steele, Blunk and Kitley has helped the team’s physical conditioning and allowed each of the athletes to have one-on-one time with the coaches, Herring said.
“They’ve worked with me months and months to try to get me back on the team,” transfer-student Caleigh Swanson said after suffering multiple concussions at her previous college due to cheerleading. “(They did) everything they possibly could so that I could participate and be a part of the group.”
Caleigh, who is in her first season as a STUNT athlete, spoke about the transition to STUNT and how the sport compares to cheerleading.
“Sideline cheerleading is cheering on the team (and) pumping up the crowd, but this (is) a mix between gymnastics and cheerleading,” Swanson said. “It’s more intense — you have to rely on each other as a team all the way through.”
The Hornets will learn if they’ll be asked to rely on each other one more time at nationals sometime this week.
“(My motivation) is the other girls on the team,” Swanson said. “Knowing how hard everybody else works makes me want to be better and just help the team as much as I can because we all strive to be the best we can be — and I want to help them get there.”
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