Despite basketball attendance, DePaul cheer squad’s spirit strong

Despite basketball attendance, DePaul cheer squad’s spirit strong
The DePaul cheer squad leads the crowd in a cheer on Feb. 25. (Josh Leff / The DePaulia)
The DePaul cheer squad leads the crowd in a cheer on Feb. 25. (Josh Leff / The DePaulia)

It’s no secret that school spirit at DePaul is scarce, if not non-existent. Even the seemingly biggest sport here — in the absence of a football team — basketball, fails to cultivate support, in large part because of an unhopeful men’s team and the apparent disinterest in the success of the women’s. 

Attendance rates increased by 15 percent since the 2013-14 season, but still, Allstate Arena  only hosted an average of 2,200 people per game last year, according to public records, and DePaul’s McGrath Phillips Arena regularly fails to fill its small, 3,000-seat capacity.

But occupying the court in McGrath three, sometimes four or five nights a week is a squad of women and men who might have enough spirit for the lot of us: DePaul Cheer, an 89-year-old organization.

“We’ve cheered games where there’s been a snowstorm and there might be 250 people in the crowd,” squad captain and four-year veteran Diana Gutierrez said. “As a cheerleader, if you hold the values close to your heart, it doesn’t matter who’s watching, because at practice, no one is watching. The crowd is an added bonus.”

Last Wednesday, the team hosted their first Open Gym, an invitation to prospective cheerleaders, transfer students and high school students interested in cheering for DePaul Division I sports.

“I like it so far,” DePaul freshman Stella Waddington, who recently transferred from the University of Memphis said. “I like the vibe better than the South already and I like that it’s small and co-ed because you can be more one-on-one with your teammates.”

Waddington comes from a team of almost three times the size of DePaul’s nine member squad, where game day attendance averages close to 60,000 per game, and football is next on the list of ways of life after Christianity.

“When you’re born in the South you are just bred to either be a football player, cheerleader or in band at a very early age,” Head Coach Valeria Ruiz said. “These girls and guys are really growing up to become a cheerleader and it’s very competitive.”

The emphasis on academics has attracted students like Waddington, though, who prioritized cheer when she chose University of Memphis and regretted it. It’s also a point of pride for Ruiz, even if it means a smaller crowd or a cheer culture that is subservient to education.

“At DePaul we really focus our passion and value on being a student first that’s why we call people student-athletes instead of athletes,” she said. “If you’re not really going to school for school, but you’re going for a sport, it’s going to be easier to be that athlete because that’s your job. I encourage my girls to put their education first.”

Still, the time commitment is arduous. Each member is required to have a minimum of three independent workouts a week signed off by the team’s strength and conditioning coach, spirit coach and Ruiz. They cheer sometimes at three games in one week, and travel with the team for away games. This is all in addition to six to nine hours of practice per week.

It’s all towards building a strong foundation not just in the quads of the woman or man at the base of a stunt, but within the team’s dynamic. This is why having a large squad is the last of Ruiz’ concerns.

“I wasn’t thinking ‘I want 25 people to be on the team,’” she said. “I was thinking I want four or five solid people who are passionate and love the program because that’s going to radiate off of them to the others and to the crowd.”

One of these leaders is Gutierrez, who will cheer for DePaul, and perhaps in general, for her last time this season. She graduates, though, not with the mindset of becoming a professional cheerleader, but with the intention of moving on to a career in broadcast journalism.

“I think that it’s time for me to start focusing on the future, focusing on my career. I’m so fulfilled with my cheer career at DePaul that I don’t think I need to pursue anything more with it,” she said.

The members who will carry on the 89 year-old cheer program are freshmen and sophomores, comprising one of the youngest teams DePaul cheer has had, all of whom will presumably be here gearing up for the 2017 reveal of a 10,000-seat McCormick Place arena something that both Ruiz and Gutierrez are confident will be pivotal in a shifting enthusiasm for DePaul athletics.

“Right now it’s a little challenging, just with the Allstate Arena being so far away, but I guarantee in 2017, when our event center is built, the culture is going to shift and DePaul cheer is going to be here still, amplifying the large crowds who come out to support DePaul basketball,” Ruiz said.

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