Kellen Newman, Tonner Johnson and Caleb Ott practice stunting in Hinkle. Photo by Lauren Gdowski.
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For most, a new school, new friends and a new life at college is enough to adjust to. But what about a completely new D1 sport?
“It’s a little bit nerve wracking at first,” first-year cheerleader Dietzen Worland said. “The other guys don’t really give you a crash course. They more just throw you in there and are like, ‘Just throw [her] up and catch [her],’ and you’re like ‘Ok.’”
Of the nine male cheerleaders on Butler’s team, eight of them only started cheering once they got to Butler.
Some, like Worland and first-year Nathan Reshad, were talked into giving it a shot at this year’s Block Party. Others on the team, like seniors Tonner Johnson and Jacob Smolnicky, had friends on the team who invited them to open gyms.
But one thing is true for all eight guys — none of them ever saw themselves as cheerleaders.
“It was so unexpected, but I’m grateful for it, all the people I’ve met through it and all the opportunities,” Johnson said. “It’s been nothing but good and a lot of fun.”
Most of the guys came to Butler as former high school athletes — primarily wrestlers, football players and baseball players. Junior Caleb Ott, who played baseball and football in high school, said while he is still center field during games, the feeling is completely different.
“When we played sports in high school, it was our job to perform well, and for us to do well,” Ott said. “Our job [now] is to entertain people and give them a good feeling which is a really different thing … We’re making it a fun environment, and yeah, the attention is on us, but we also wanna really elevate [the fans’] experience.”
Senior Kellen Newman, on the other hand, came to Butler to pursue another sport, but has since found a home with the cheer team.
“I was very lost before Butler cheer because I had just quit football,” Newman said. “I came here to play football, and I was kind of looking for my purpose and something to connect me to the school because I felt like my desire and affection for the school was kind of fading … I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a completely different person when I came [to Butler]. Cheer has actually really helped me love the person I am now because I am actively seeking joy and actively going for what I want. I wouldn’t trade it for a thing.”
In contrast to a lot of other college athletes who play their same sport for years before reaching the collegiate level, assistant coach Cole Bonewit said it is relatively common for male cheerleaders to have no experience prior to college.
Bonewit said most, if not all, of the co-ed stunting done at the collegiate level is not allowed in high school. Bonewit said those limitations, along with preconceived notions of what the sport entails, can hold guys back from starting sooner.
“Once guys get to college, they’re open to trying new things and taking chances,” Bonewit said. “ … There’s obviously a lot of stereotypes that go along with males and cheerleading, and I think that a lot of those stereotypes come from what they see in high school. What they see is typically girls with pom poms doing dances on the court, and that’s their only vision of what cheerleading is. There is still that, a lot of that, but there’s also the stunting aspect, and the co-ed stunting that they don’t see.”
While it might seem dangerous to have brand new talent throwing flyers into the air, Bonewit said safety is always a priority on the team. Once a guy is in the gym, multiple spotters are around to make sure everyone stays safe, and the guys with more experience are always there to help.
“For me, I just want to be able to replicate the same experience the guys above me were able to give to me in terms of teaching and everything,” Johnson said. “That’s something I really want to be able to do for the younger guys now just because there is such a difference between [cheer and] other sports, so helping them learn how to stunt well and get acclimated to Hinkle and everything during games is something that’s important to me.”
Sophomore Noah Lipscomb wrestled at the high school where assistant coach Bonewit teaches. Initially drawn in by the offer of free merch and Muscle Milk, Lipscomb said cheer has given him more than what he ever thought it would.
“[Cheer has] really given me a place on this campus,” Lipscomb said. “It’s given me a personality, a sense of who I am and also given me a place to really call home. A lot of places I have trouble fitting in, but here I’ve always felt at home and accepted by everyone.”
Sophomore Tanner Hampton said cheer means that “the second you come on campus you have a family.” Even beyond the cheers heard in Hinkle, at the Sellick Bowl and across campus, the team and coach Bonewit said that same kind of energy and support is felt day-to-day.
“I feel like when you think of cheerleading you think of very big personalities, which we do have,” Lipscomb said. “But I feel like in a lot of other sports it can cause a lot of conflict between people — you have people trying to be the head honcho and all that. But I’ve never felt that here honestly. We all have very big personalities, we’re all cheerleaders at the end of the day, but we’re all also able to come together and put our personalities and our egos aside and be a team, be the cheer team.”
Worland said he has never been on a team where “this many people mesh so well.” The typical arguing and ego he experienced on teams in the past is replaced with a willingness to help and uplift others. Being on the team for less than a semester and learning so many new skills, Worland said the team is never shy to show their encouragement.
“Nothing matches the support when you hit [a new stunt],” Worland said. “I mean, you hit something new in here, and it almost sounds like it’s a game in Hinkle with how crazy everyone gets for you.”
Along with the draw of community also comes the lure of competition. Last year was the team’s first time competing at the UCA College Cheerleading National Championship. For many on the team who grew up competing in various other sports, having a goal to work towards is a familiar type of motivation.
This year’s nationals are not until January, but the guys are already itching to compete. Until then, however, the team will continue bringing their best during volleyball, football and much-anticipated basketball games.
“There’s just nothing that matches it, especially like the Xavier game last year,” Johnson said. “To be courtside for that and front row in Dawg Pound is just an unmatched experience. I would say ‘electric’ is the best word I can think [of] to describe it.”