New Cheer coach is loud but loving

New GCU Cheer coach Ashley Aquilina leads her first practice.

Photos by Ralph Freso

Ashley Aquilina looks so young that she wore an ID badge as a high school coach so people would stop telling her that she needed to get back to class.

“You probably have to compensate for that in a way in coaching because you look maybe like an easy mark. I’ve just had to own it, and if anybody tries to test it ... I’m not as young as I look,” said Aquilina, the 26-year-old new head coach of the Grand Canyon University Cheer team. “I’m a small person, but I’m really loud.”

Aquilina has extensive cheerleading experience.

Aquilina is quickly showing she’s a tiny dynamo, launching practice Friday with high expectations for a team that is already accomplished, coming off national championships in its Universal Cheerleading Association (UCA) division in 2021 and 2022.

“I’m big on accountability, and I’m not afraid to hold anybody accountable. But I also think I have a good balance of being compassionate,” she said. “I am a younger coach, so I think that can be hard to navigate at times. For me, it’s a strong suit because I was just in their shoes four years ago. I can understand from a coach’s perspective as well as an athlete’s perspective what they are going through and what they need.”

Aquilina comes to GCU with a stellar cheerleading career of her own to usher in a new era at GCU: She will build two teams instead of one for competition, an all-woman team and a co-ed unit, brought together for the signature experience they provide at GCU sporting events.

The team is also growing by 30 athletes, up to nearly 80 combined on the two teams.

“I don’t want to reinvent the wheel, because I think GCU has done a fantastic job with its game day experience already,” she said. “I’m hoping to build on what they’ve already been doing in the past with bigger and better stunts, bigger and better skills, maybe a level up.”

The skills that are key to success in national cheerleading competitions in January and April will be refined by a coach who has a background of competition and as a high school coach and UCA staffer.

“She is definitely someone prepared and ready to elevate GCU Cheer to new levels,” said Jesi Weeks, Spirit Programs Manager. “Speaking as an alum, it’s every alum’s dream for the program to get better. This is another step in that growth.”

Aquilina also likes country music – and occasionally speaks lyrically.

Aquilina wants to pass on what she learned from her coaches.

“I remember loving Arizona nights.”

She coached in camps here a few years ago and never forgot the desert. It was close to her childhood home in California, where she took up cheerleading relatively late at age 11. Within three practices, she was doing a back tuck and thought, “Man, I’m good at this.”

She quickly became a “gym rat,” determined to catch up as a flier, or top girl, with a goal to be on the World’s team, and by her senior year in high school, she was. Aquilina was a bronze medalist in The Cheerleading Worlds and a U.S. trials champion in 2015 before competing and coaching in Europe and on the UCA staff.

In her collegiate career, helping highly touted Shelton State Community College and then Morehead State University to national championships, she picked up another desire.

Her coach at Shelton, Christa Sanford (now at Alabama), took in a directionless, poor student “and just really molded me into being a better person and better teammate,” Aquilina said.

“She taught me a lot about being selfless and having good character. I knew I was never more confident, and so I just thought this a cool thing that I could pass on to other athletes – confidence, competitiveness, hard work, dedication, but also the care that she gave me.”

It led to a reunion with Arizona nights in 2019. Driving a UPS truck, she thought it would be a challenge find a coaching job until she landed one at Verrado High School in Buckeye. Just to the east, she heard of a good college team and would travel to GCU for stunt workouts.

That led to a job as an assistant last year.

Aquilina brings a lot of enthusiasm to her new role.

 “I love Jesus and my dog.”

The people she met at GCU aligned with her faith and character, and she was thrilled to land the job as head coach this summer.

“The athletes are so respectful, just a class act, and such a joy to be around because they are joyful people,” she said. “I really feel like I couldn’t ask for a better program to coach just for the kind of human beings they are.”

She describes herself as easygoing, funny, caring “with a huge heart I wear on my sleeve,” and Koda, her Belgian Malinois, knows it.

This year’s team, half of them new, also started to hear her song.

Aquilina preaches being a good teammate.

“We’re better together.”

Aquilina was speaking of all of Spirit Programs, which create the unrivaled, raucous Arena during basketball games, but also her Cheer team philosophy.

“My biggest thing is building them up separately while still holding them up all together to do that at home,” she said of the two team’s competition focus and unified game day experience.

She said the skills, stunts and tumbles, basket tosses and pyramids, will be even better this year, refined at two-a-day three-hour practices in August.

“But on top of that you have to be a good teammate. That’s really number one,” she said. “You can be a really talented person and come into this program and not last very long because you don’t jell with the team. It’s really a team-based sport. When you are dealing with people throwing each other in the air, you have to build trust.”

Grand Canyon University senior writer Mike Kilen can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-6764.

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Related content:

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David said to Michal, "It was before the Lord, who chose me rather than your father or anyone from his house when He appointed me ruler over the Lord’s people Israel — I will celebrate before the Lord. (2 Samuel 6:21)

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