Spirit teams bring on the Thunder, excel at camp

Grand Canyon University's Spirit team brought home a slew of awards from this week's UCA and UDA College Camp in Estes Park, Colo.

By Lana Sweeten-Shults
GCU News Bureau

­­­­­The Purple Pregame Party just wasn’t the same last season. After all, the basketball hype sessions in GCU Arena had fewer fans to hype up because of COVID restrictions.

And then — BAM! — just like that, Grand Canyon University’s Spirit teams took the heart and soul of those hype sessions, inserted them into their performances at this week’s Universal Cheerleaders Association and Universal Dance Association summer camp in Estes Park, Colorado, and returned with a slew of awards, including several first-place prizes.

It was the first time GCU’s Spirit teams competed at the UCA and UDA College Camp in Colorado, having previously attended the camp in Santa Barbara, California.

What was amazing about the Spirit team’s accomplishments is that GCU achieved those awards not only with a slate of new athletes but with several returning sophomores who didn't go to camp in 2020 because they were canceled.

The summer camp wins solidify the Lopes’ reputation as a high-caliber team and follows up wins on the national stage earlier this year. The Dance team turned in a three-peat as national champ in the Division 1 Game Day category of the UDA’s College Dance Team National Championship, and Cheer commanded the stage for first place in the Division 1 Small Coed category of the UCA College Cheerleading National Championship.

Dance Excellence

The Dance team placed first in Game Day and Home Routine and also received the Collegiate Recognition and Superior awards.

At the three-day camp, which wrapped up Tuesday, the Dance team placed first in Game Day, showcasing the routines it performs in GCU Arena on typical game days. It’s a category the team has commanded at competitions.

The Dance team also earned first place in Home Routine, with a routine choreographed by two of the team’s athletes to a worship song by Jervis Campbell.

“They’re really good choreographers. I’ve always been super impressed with them,” said Dance team coach Jacque Genung-Koch, who was one of two finalists this spring for the National Dance Coaches Association College Coach of the Year. “I was like, guys, what do you think about choreographing our home routine this year? They just took it on like champs and did a beautiful job and put a really amazing piece of choreography together for the team. It was absolutely gorgeous.”

Besides those first places, the team received the Collegiate Recognition Award, voted on by the camp staff and given to a team that represents itself and its college well by its attitude, actions and how members treat each other and other campers. And they received the Superior Award for routines they learned at camp, with each team member receiving a blue ribbon.

Attending summer camp, said Genung-Koch, gives the team a chance to learn new choreography to bring home to GCU, but it’s also a chance to get ready for nationals. The teams bring their home routine to camp, where they get feedback from instructors, and they work on game day elements, such as fight song, chants and a timeout routine, putting them together like they would for the Game Day category at nationals.

Jacque Genung-Koch

“So there’s a lot that goes on and got packed into three days,” she said.

What was unique about this year, Genung-Koch added, is that of the 34 GCU Dance athletes at camp, only seven had ever been to a camp before. Assistant Dance Coach Madeline Soave also attended camp for the first time.

“It’s a really huge rookie class for us this year since we graduated some of the seniors out last year,” she said.

But that inexperience didn’t slow down the team one bit.

“There were some nerves, of course,” Genung-Koch said. “No one’s perfect. But we’re not working on perfection, we’re working on excellence.”

UDA staff that coached the team at camp and has watched it grow over the years said to Genung-Koch and her athletes, “Yeah, you guys are young, but that’s exciting to be able to step into that legacy. You wear that uniform with pride because of who you get to represent. You get to be in that next step in that long line of success. You definitely watch them step into it proudly.”

Success for Cheer

Cheer placed first in Fight Song, Timeout Performance and Sideline routine.

The other Spirit team striving for excellence, rather than perfection: the Cheer team, which finished first in Fight Song, Timeout Performance and Sideline.

What put them over the top?

“It’s really just the spirit of GCU — to be a little bit extra about everything,” said Cheer coach Keegan Hubbard, who said Cheer performed at a high level even after a 14-hour bus ride to Estes Park. “Really, it was pursuing that extra mile and being that GCU extra everybody expects us to be.”

Like the Dance team, Cheer also is renowned for its Game Day routine and “just the energy of it,” Hubbard said. The same was true at camp.

“Our fight song, obviously, is always amazing. But, really it’s us bringing the game day experience to other people. It doesn’t matter where we are. We could be in the back of a truck, we could be on the side of the road. No matter what, you’re always going to get that extreme game day, GCU-type feel.

Keegan Hubbard

“We bring it wherever we go.”

And where the team brought it was in competition against teams it doesn’t normally see at camp, such as the University of New Mexico and the Air Force Academy.

Cheer also floored judges even though about 50% of the team had never been to camp before.

Hubbard himself is somewhat of a rookie in his role as Cheer coach after previously serving as assistant coach. This was his first full year to helm Cheer, alongside another new member of the team, assistant coach Ashley Aquilina.

It was a significant summer for him as a first-year coach and for Aquilina as a first-year assistant coach.

Bringing the Thunder

Thunder does a backflip for "The Matrix" portion of his home skit.

Cheer and Dance weren’t the only GCU representatives who dominated at camp.

Thunder placed first in Camp Champ (an all-around competition), Game Day and Home Skit.

Spirit Programs Manager Jesi Weeks said for the Home Skit competition, the Spirit team headed to a nearby Safeway.

“We had to make do with whatever we could find there, so the props we used were pool noodles and hair dryers and things we could find that were around.

“They made do with little, so that was awesome. It was really cool to see how creative Thunder could be with the least amount of things.”

Thunder’s skit theme: “Thunder’s Daydreaming Zoom Adventures.”

America’s Favorite Mascot was in his Zoom class and started dozing off, prompting him to be transported to different movies in his dreams. The skit included segments from “Dirty Dancing”; “Jurassic Park,” in which he taught the dinosaurs how to do hip-hop; “The Matrix,” which included a backflip with one of the cheerleaders; and “Titanic.”

He also did a tribute to "Dirty Dancing."

“Every year, Thunder is a big hit at camp,” Weeks said.

And being back at camp was a big hit for GCU’s Spirit athletes.

“It felt so good to be at a camp setting … to just go and be able to interact with other people … to be in a space that kind of felt like a more normal space than we’ve experienced in a long time, was amazing,” Weeks said.

With all the triumphs of summer camp behind them, the Spirit teams are anxious to do one more thing: Get back to where they belong — in GCU Arena — to hype up standing-room-only crowds once again.

Jesi Weeks

Hubbard said the Spirit team already is thinking about Welcome Week and Lope-A-Palooza, GCU’s signature Welcome Week pep rally that will follow the women’s volleyball match Sept. 3.

“We’re just excited to get back to what we love doing, support GCU and all those facets,” Hubbard said.

Weeks added, “That (camp) was the hype we needed as we’re getting ready for this season. I know Thunder is super excited, and I think the students are ready for what’s to come from Thunder this year. He’s going to step it up to a whole other level.”

BAM!

GCU senior writer Lana Sweeten-Shults can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-7901.

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Related content:

GCU Today: GCU Cheer Team captures first national championship

GCU Today: GCU Dance brings home 3rd national title

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