Some of the earliest risers at Columbia College bring the most energy.
Shining in the spotlight requires commitment behind the scenes for the 20 student-athletes in the second-year program, which is comprised of 13 athletes in cheer and seven in dance. The combined roster size of the teams has grown since they were established ahead of the 2021-22 academic year.
“The sun is just coming up when we get here,” head competitive cheer coach Danniele Liles says about the program’s practices, which start around 6:30 a.m. and generally occur three or four days per week, in addition to strength and conditioning. “The lights are turning on for us. It’s a good start to the day.”
Liles spearheads the Spirit Squad alongside head competitive dance coach Amanda Roberts.
Their first priority when they were hired in March 2021 was to improve the atmosphere at Cougar men’s and women’s basketball games.
“Our first job was to come in and bring some of that extra sparkle,” Liles says.
There is more awareness and excitement on campus surrounding the Spirit Squad this year, says Annie Lemerande, dance team captain.
“People are definitely realizing how dedicated we are and how serious we are,” she says.
The sophomore is part of the program’s inaugural class, one she hopes will help pave the way.
“We are starting a lot of small traditions here that I know will be carried out for years,” Lemerande says. “It’s really exciting to start something new like that.”
Liles believes the culture at Columbia College is what makes it special. Putting that on display is the Spirit Squad’s specialty.
“We get to be that face a little bit for Columbia College, and all the alumni from the many years of this college’s history, we get to sort of be a face for them and get them represented out in the community in ways that didn’t always happen otherwise,” Liles says.
Scooter often is leading that charge. Freshman Aaron Bilbruck has earned rave reviews for his performances as the beloved Cougar mascot.
Faces light up when people come across Scooter – including longtime faculty members, Liles says.
“(Bilbruck) takes it so seriously and has been such a gift to the program,” she says. “He’s taken Scooter and given him a whole life and personality, and we’re really excited to see the continued growth and use of Scooter being here, there and everywhere.”
The current composition of the cheer and dance teams is almost entirely freshmen and sophomores. Liles and Roberts expect to expand the size of their respective rosters in the coming years.
After not competing in its first year, the program is scheduled to compete at events in Missouri, Kansas and Nebraska in February before the NAIA cheer and dance championships in early March.
Competition routines for the cheer team build upon gameday performances but include more stunts because they are on mats and not the basketball hardwood, Liles says.
February will serve as the team’s exciting “first foray,” she says.
“It will definitely take some time for us to get where we want to be,” Liles says, “but we really feel like we’ve got a great group in our first year of competition. Our goal is to go and represent our school in a way that we’re proud of.”
Roberts and Lemerande echo a similar sentiment about the dance team.
“We’ve been waiting a while to be able to compete, so it’s definitely exciting but nerve-wracking too,” Lemerande says. “Being the first dance team ever at Columbia College to compete is a big deal, but I think we can meet the expectations, for sure.”
The team is a work in progress, but its foundation is in place and only gaining momentum.
“As we grow in size, we’ll also be able to continue to push all of our members’ skill levels,” Roberts said. “We all want to be on that giant nationals stage and not only do well, but fight for that first-place trophy. I have plans for this team to be known as a powerhouse in the Midwest. And we will.”
That confident approach is guiding both teams as they make strides forward.
“The most important thing we look for and we think we’ve found with the girls we’ve got now is the want, the motivation to come here and keep doing this,” Liles says. “You have to really love this sport and have to love it so much that you want to do everything you can to keep doing it.”
Members of the cheer and dance teams are keeping their dreams alive – together. While they are two teams, they represent one joint program and the college as a whole.
That makes the early mornings well worth the effort.
“We work really hard,” Lemerande says. “We get up every morning at 6:30 to practice, and coach pushes us to our breaking points, but it’s great and we’re all in it together.”