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Shifting cheer role during pandemic places leprechauns more central than ever

| Friday, May 21, 2021

When the world came to a screeching halt just over a year ago, sports were one of the first things people were worried about. The main concern for many was the upcoming March Madness tournament. A vast majority of people were remiss to remember what made sports so fun pre-COVID and were just pushing the athletes to get out onto barren courts in empty arenas, all socially distanced so that their games could go on.

Sports fans everywhere knew something was off though. The atmosphere created inside of a stadium during a game simply cannot be replicated without the people who make up that atmosphere. No two stadiums are alike, no two games are alike. But one facet of sports that people began to appreciate a little bit more once it was gone was that missing atmosphere. A big part of that atmosphere at any sporting event is the cheerleaders.

Like everyone, Notre Dame’s cheer squad experienced some difficult changes in the midst of the pandemic, but they seemed to have arrived on the other side of it stronger than ever. ACC Spirit Coach of the year, Delayna Herndon said that one immediate change she saw was the vast amount of male participation in the sport. 

“Most of our male cheerleaders were not cheerleaders before, they were high school athletes who really just miss being on a team, and we recruited them to be a part of our team because we need really athletic individuals,” Herndon said. 

Herndon explained how since most male cheerleaders didn’t have the skillset of crowd leading, it was an emphasis for the entire team. 

“Something I think that came up this year was [that] all of our students, males and females became better crowd leaders and better cheerleaders because it’s all they could do to be engaged in the game and engaged with the crowd.” 

The typical routines and game day customs for cheerleaders were thrown off quite a bit this past season thanks to the pandemic. The most noticeable change was their lack of field presence. People still craved the atmosphere that sports provided, so the show had to go on: bands and cheerleaders at schools across the nation were placed in bleachers and were provided with ample screen time throughout the season. This also included mascots. 

The iconic Notre Dame Leprechaun had a history-making roster last season. In addition to Conal Fagan, the first native Irishman to wear the suit, Lynette Wukie made history becoming the third African American to hold the role. Wukie is also the first woman to serve in the role of the leprechaun. 

Wukie came to Notre Dame already breaking through the glass ceiling in golf. She worked as the only female golf caddie in her hometown near Cleveland while in high school. She earned the Chick Evans Scholarship through the job, a four-year tuition and housing college scholarship offered to students who have caddied at their local courses. In her video application, Wukie begged the question, “Who said the Fighting Irish can’t fight like a girl?” And by filling the role, she has inspired and encouraged young female athletes everywhere. 

Both Wukie and Fagan will graduate in 2021, leaving the iconic role in the hands of returning graduate student Pat Johnson, senior Gabe Ramos, senior Alex Sampson and junior Sophie Bouldoukin, the second female leprechaun. 

The leprechauns will have their hands full in 2021 especially when assuming the positive trends in terms of vaccination and loosening restrictions will continue. The one thing that separates these athletes from others is that their season is truly year-round. As such Coach Herndon describes their training approach as more of a slow and steady wins the race. 

“I think more people need to know that we don’t have an offseason, that’s something that is huge,” Coach Herndon. “So it’s huge on time management and [it just involves] a lot of communication between staff and our students.” 

Besides the communication, Herndon emphasized the importance of rest. A couple of days off when school starts to ramp up can really go a long way not just for an athlete’s mental health but also for their physical performance. 

One thing is for certain though: When Fall rolls around and anticipation builds around campus for the football season, everyone will be hoping to see the cheerleaders and our old flag-wielding leprechaun friends make their return to the turf to lead the Fighting Irish out of their tunnel.  

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About Jimmy Ward

Jimmy is a senior at Holy Cross College, where he studies English and sports management. He is originally from Westfield, Indiana. Currently, Jimmy serves as an associate sports editor at The Observer. You can find him at @jimmyyward on Twitter.

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