By Theresa Smith
GCU News Bureau
The Game Day atmosphere that Grand Canyon University's spirit teams execute in sleek, enthusiastic fashion paid off Friday afternoon in the first national championship for a GCU Spirit team.
And a few hours after GCU's Dance team won the Game Day Division I title, GCU's Cheer team finished runner-up in Game Day Open Co-ed competition.
The Dance team, with Thunder and a seven-member drum line pitching in, captured the title in the Cheerleading and Dance Team National Championships at Orlando, Fla., conducted by the UCA (Universal Cheer Association) and UDA (Universal Dance Association) at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex. The University of Nebraska-Omaha placed second, followed by St. John's University.
“This was our first time competing in Game Day, so it is such an amazing opportunity that we got to go out there and just really show what our school is all about,” said Dance team captain McKenna Ross, a senior from Gilbert. “We really put it out there. And we have the drum line with us. That was such a cool addition we got to add. It was great.’’
The seven-person drum line (one snare, two tenor and four bass) was guided by Band Director Paul Koch.
When asked about the cohesive relationship of all Lopes spirit programs, Ross said, “What we do that is so great at our school is that we really are as one in a family. So all of our Spirit program comes together, which is Cheer, band (Thundering Heard Pep Band), Dance, the Havocs and our mascot (Thunder). We come together and we think, ‘What we are going to do throughout game day?’ And we have it meld all together.’’
The same pregame, fight song and timeout performances that pump up the Havocs student cheering section and thrilled Lopes fans all year made a major impression on the judges.
The Dance team, led by coach Jacque Genung-Koch, is also entered in Division I Jazz, scheduled for Saturday.
The Cheer team, under the direction of Emily Stephens, Director of Spirit Programs, and associate coach Keegan Hubbard, finished behind the University of Delaware. Southeastern Louisiana University placed third.
It was GCU's first participation in the Game Day category, a second-year event.
“Since it is only in its second year, these are the years that will shape the rest of how the division looks in years to come,’’ Hubbard said before leaving for Florida. “So for us going out there we want to put on something they haven’t seen before. Nobody has taken their band before and we’re taking our drum line. We are super excited for that.’’
The fight song, timeout routine, chant into band dance and sideline routines of Game Day reflect the core priorities of the nationally recognized game day atmosphere under the direction of Helen Bleach, Vice President of Campus Events and Arena Operations.
“We are first and foremost a Game Day team, meaning our effort and energy and time is predominantly spent on preparing and polishing material for GCU athletic events and appearances,’’ Genung-Koch said before the event. “That material spans from technical dance expertise when executing collegiate level dance skills for routines to the little details necessary to look polished.’’
Those details include rallying and engaging a crowd.
Challenging jazz routine
In terms of the jazz event, the dance team will compete in the Division I level for the second consecutive year following an impressive fourth-place finish in 2018.
That routine is limited by rules to 15 dancers while 30 are permitted for Game Day, but Genung-Koch limited the travel squad to 20 because she wanted to have 12 dancers available to perform at the men’s basketball games this week.
“Our priority for the school is the games here on campus,’’ Genung-Koch said. “So we are having a nice solid squad here to make sure that is fulfilled while we’re traveling and competing. Those are both priorities for us.’’
Rigorous preparation since last May
Preparation for competition began last May after 32 dancers emerged from the tryout process. From that point until July, they worked out at home to maintain strength, cardiovascular conditioning and agility in preparation for team practices and camps from late July through the start of classes in late August. Since then, the dancers devote approximately 20 hours per week to rehearsal practices, strength and conditioning sessions and performances at athletic events and community appearances.
The jazz routine is more technical this year, requiring an increased number of turn combinations, faster dancing and a higher cardiovascular level.
“It has been significantly more work than in the past, so we’re excited to go and demonstrate that we can handle more out on the floor,’’ Genung-Koch said. “It is a little nerve-wracking because it is something new for us and it is challenging for us, but we have rehearsed about as much as we can practice. The girls are feeling comfortable and confident in their bodies, which is good. You don’t want to peak too soon; you want them to keep pushing up until the end.’’
The Cheer team, which also trains and performs approximately 20 hours per week, will compete in its second and final event on Saturday. The small Co-ed Division I category features a more traditional routine. It is performance-based, including extremely difficult stunts and tumbling. It consists of four males and 12 females and judges will expect the routine to be flawless to make it to finals.
The unprecedented runner-up finish for the Cheer team fell in line with Stephens' prediction. Before the flight to Florida, she said the Game Day performers would show the nation "what makes GCU so special." The six men and 24 women who traveled to Florida performed nearly both routines at the women’s basketball game on Jan. 12.
“It went fantastic,’’ Hubbard said before leaving for Florida. “They got the nerves out and performed in front of our home crowd, students and alumni. It was a great routine.’’
Comparing his squad to basketball players shooting 100 3-pointers on their own, Hubbard said the extra preparation by each individual has accelerated the team’s performance level.
Banging the drum
As with cheerleaders and dancers who pump up the crowd, Koch has worked to yield the most from each of his drummers – both inside and outside.
“On the inside we’ve got to be solid drummers, meaning we’re playing clean, we look the same, we have great technique,’’ he said. “On the outside, we are engaging with the audience. We are an entertaining force for everybody.’’
That means high energy, smiling, laughing, dancing and playing up to the crowd.
“It has been fun watching the kids work through that, growing and developing as performers making their performance chops match up with their musical chops,’’ Koch said.
As a member of the PHX Percussion drum line for the Phoenix Suns in 2005 and their leader from 2006 to 2010, Koch knows exactly how to play to a crowd.
“That was one experience I look back on that I didn’t know at that time was preparing me for this job,’’ he said. “If you look at our pep band with copycats dance moves, it changes the environment of games. We are playing the instruments really well, but at the same time, dancing and moving makes the entire thing entertaining. Most of that came from my experience with PHX Percussion, seeing what the crowd liked and what was entertaining to them.’’
In terms of nationals, the judges are even more important than the crowd.
“They are assessing us on providing spirit in a game day situation,’’ he said. “It is collaborative, cheering and dancing in rhythm.’’
But the entire Spirit team has one main thought in mind: “We have prayers for healthy and safe bodies," Genung-Koch said, "that we are able to go and do what we rehearsed for.’’
With one national title and a runner-up finish after Day 1, practice is making perfect.
Contact Theresa Smith at (602) 639-7457 or [email protected].
GCU Today: Dance whisperer Genung-Koch has team on move