They were determined when the season started to set the standard for years to come.
Grand Canyon University Spirit Programs knew that a new category in the UCA/UDA College Cheerleading and Dance National Championships – Game Day Live – would be right up their alley. It combines cheerleading, dance, pep band and mascot in one performance.
“It’s what we do best,” said Spirit Programs Manager Jesi Weeks. “This was meant for us.”
Cheer, Dance, Thundering Heard Pep Band and mascot Thunder did set the standard in Orlando, Florida, last weekend, winning the national title in the open division of Spirit Programs Game Day Live.
The Dance team also excelled separately in the difficult Division 1 jazz (second place) and hip hop (fourth place) competitions.
But the Game Day win showed that Spirit Programs goes beyond the stellar Cheer and Dance teams, which individually have won nationals in years past. The combined unit is what basketball fans have known for years can bring extra energy to an arena.
In fact, Weeks said that the Thundering Heard’s 14-member unit, led by Director of Bands Dr. Paul Koch, shined in its first chance to perform beyond music at nationals with precision steps and formations that in part was inspired by Dance coach Jacque Genung-Koch.
“They really set the tone for Cheer and Dance,” Weeks said.
After the fight song and chants, the Lopes dazzled the judges in its Purple Pregame Party routine, with performances by Thunder, who finished fourth in the Open Mascot category, and new creative wrinkles by Cheer coach Ashley Aquilina.
Weeks said that after GCU finished its four-minute routine, she heard a nationals representative call it a “life-changing routine” that they couldn’t believe they just witnessed.
“We are a young school, so we don’t have to worry what our tradition is. It’s fun. It’s music,” Weeks said. “Our students are who we perform for, and we are here so they can feel the energy.”
The Dance team excelled, being the first in program history to compete in three categories at nationals, which Genung-Koch said was a difficult decision.
“It required more mental and physical grit than any other nationals season for our team,” she said.
GCU responded with a second place out of 31 schools in Division 1 jazz with its highest score in team history (91.7971).
“Backstage after finals was singularly one of my favorite moments of coaching at GCU,” Genung-Koch said.
It was also the first time GCU made it to the finals in the Division 1 hip hop category, finishing fourth.
“No one saw us coming, and it was fun to do so well as an unanticipated competitor,” she said.
Weeks especially loved the range the Dance team showed in the two performances, from a street-tough hip hop set that showed “we are not here to play and will mess you up,” to the jazz performance, “soft and beautiful that drew you in and told a story.”
To Genung-Koch, the bar has been set high.
“If anyone in our industry was uncertain about who embodies Game Day at their university, they now know. It was SO MUCH FUN to show the world who we are as a school and program,” she said.
Aquilina, in her first year as Cheer coach, established a new standard as well, jumping up the level of skills in the program to set the table for the future while finishing ninth.
"I'm so proud, I love this bunch so much. Their work ethic, the way they love God and each other, and their will to try something new. Over half of traditional mat had never taken the stage before," she said. "We trusted the process when it got hard. We didn't win both divisions, but we learned we are capable of more than we think.
"I will never forget the 2023 nationals team at GCU. I will always remember seeing them compete in Game Day without an ounce of doubt. Anyone could tell in that arena."
Added Weeks: “We are no longer afraid to take the next step and are growing in our skill level."
Grand Canyon University senior writer Mike Kilen can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-6764.
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