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Notre Dame cheerleading reaches new heights during 2019-2020 seasons

| Friday, May 15, 2020

Notre Dame cheerleading is undoubtedly one of the visible teams on campus. However, many Notre Dame students do not understand the true scope of what the hardworking student-athletes do to represent the athletic department and the University’s many storied programs throughout the entire collegiate sports calendar.

“Notre Dame cheerleading consists of roughly 42 members of our program, and that includes cheerleaders and the leprechauns,” head coach Delayna Herndon said. “We support the athletic department through cheering at football, men’s and women’s basketball [and] men’s and women’s soccer. And then the leprechaun also supports hockey [and] men’s and women’s lacrosse.

“They will also attend various swim meets, tennis matches and support baseball and softball when able. And so our season as a whole is all year long, meaning there is no offseason for us. And our students are definitely rock stars in terms of time management [with] how they manage their academic load and their cheerleading commitments all year long.”

Courtesy of Anthony Reo Photography
Notre Dame cheerleaders during the men’s basketball team’s 80-72 victory over Pittsburgh on Feb. 5 at Purcell Pavilion.

Though Notre Dame’s spring sports seasons were unfortunately canceled due to the current COVID-19 pandemic, Herndon felt that her fourth year as head coach was a landmark year for the program.

“This season, I think, was really a turning point for us,” she said. “It was the first year that all the student-athletes in my program were only coached by me. And I think we saw a big shift in culture this year. … This was the year that we really experienced leveling-up in our ability to interact with [the] crowd and engage.

New additions to the squad also helped the Irish flourish during the year, Herndon said.

“[We] brought in a pretty big group of new members into our team and that group really acclimated well here,“ she said. “ … They really understood what we were here to do and really grasped that. We saw really good growth.”

The past year was a historic one for the program, as this year’s leprechaun lineup was the most diverse to don the iconic green suit and Irish country hat since the leprechaun became Notre Dame’s official mascot in 1965.

Senior Samuel Jackson and junior Lynnette Wukie became the second and third African-Americans to perform the part, with Wukie also becoming the first woman to wield the legendary shillelagh. Derry-born Conal Fagan, meanwhile, became the first native Irishman to serve in the role.

“It was incredible to really see … what the students brought to the role of the leprechaun,” Herndon said. “I think in years past, you see a difference in the way that each individual portrays the leprechaun. … You don’t have to look or be a certain way to serve as the Notre Dame leprechaun, and we represent all of Notre Dame.”

Courtesy of Anthony Reo Photography
Notre Dame Leprechaun Sam Jackson along with Irish cheerleaders as Notre Dame men’s basketball defeated Pittsburgh 80-72 on Feb. 5.

Though the cheerleading team does not have a distinct season like Notre Dame’s other athletic programs, Herndon said the cancelation of spring sports was unfortunately still a blow to the team’s development and preparation for next year.

“The fall and the first part of [the] spring semester always feel like a game of catchup for us — making sure we’re there for all the events and making sure we’re able to represent the athletic department at the highest level,” she said. “Right after spring break is really the time where my students get to not so much focus on what we’re doing on the court or on the field, but how they can be better as cheerleaders and as athletes for themselves.”

Herndon said the later part of the spring season allows for the team to prepare for tryouts and focus on technical work and perfecting new skills.

“Skills were about to really, really skyrocket, and we were in a place of really good growth and people were excited,” she said. “So we felt like we’ve kind of had that taken from us in a way where we were lucky in a way that we didn’t have [our entire] season taken from us like many of the other student-athletes and teams here. We feel for them, but I think for us it was a loss of growth.”

Above all, Herndon remains deeply grateful for her graduating class. She reflected on how her seniors exemplify Notre Dame cheerleading’s highest ideals and how they remained devoted to pushing the program forward, even as their collegiate careers finished in less-than-ideal fashion.

“I get emotional talking about the senior class,” she said. “[They] really embody the Notre Dame spirit. All of them have a very servant heart. They’re very team-forward. They’re very Notre Dame-first. The level of grit and hard work that they were continuing to put in — knowing that their senior year was almost over, but that the work they continued to put in would only continue to better the program — was something that was really special.

Herndon said the senior cheerleaders’ response to the pandemic was inspiring.

“Not shockingly, they’ve really taken the situation with such grace and poise. … This isn’t how they would have liked their senior year to end, but it only shows how well they will tackle adversity in the future in their next steps in their lives.”

Looking forward to the coming academic year, Herndon said the University is planning to hold the annual leprechaun tryouts when students return to campus, as the usual spring event before the annual Blue and Gold game was canceled.

“The whole process will remain unchanged for the most part,” she said. “It will just be happening at a different time of the year.”

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