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In whirlwind season, Gonzaga cheerleaders stay upbeat after being sidelined for NCAA tourneys

UPDATED: Fri., March 19, 2021

By Justin Reed For The Spokesman-Review

“Go Gonzaga, G-O-N-Z-A-G-A …”

“Defense, Bulldogs, defense …”

The cheers echoed throughout the mostly empty McCarthey Athletic Center as the Bulldogs cheer squad raged at the south end of the Kennel on Feb. 18 against Saint Mary’s.

Outside of the final four home games of the regular season, the cheerleaders who follow GU basketball teams have been forced to cheer from afar since March of 2020, as COVID-19 has prevented them from energizing the team and fans.

But just because they have been pushed out of the Kennel, doesn’t mean that the team didn’t exist.

They had virtual tryouts last May, which was difficult and had never been done.

But cheer captain Paige Bruland and head coach Michelle Wilson still were able to select an impressive new team.

With the pandemic in full force last summer, Bruland organized an exclusively virtual practice schedule. Online Zoom calls were set up to ask questions, build team morale and participate in group workouts.

As Aug. 1 arrived, with campus being closed down, the team was not able practice two times a day.

“So we just roll with the punches, do what we could, and the team was just so willing to do whatever through it all,” Bruland said. “But everyone on our team is so dedicated, cheer is their priority.”

Practice was last-minute and would sometimes be canceled, but the team was willing to work with Bruland and be flexible.

The work paid off at the beginning of February, when Washington state allowed up to a 200-person capacity for large venue events.

For the first time since the West Coast Conference Tournament, the cheer squad was back in the cheer business – at least in person.

They were the only cheer squad who were allowed to be back in their home building throughout the states of Washington and California.

She gave credit to the university and the Spokane Regional Health District to help expedite the process of gaining them entry into the Kennel.

For two weeks and four games, the cheerleaders reminded everyone else what they bring to the fold.

“When we walked in (to the Kennel) the team cheered for us, which was so awesome, because they were excited to have us there,” Bruland said. “We were excited to be there. And yeah, it was just a really, really great experience.”

She had to navigate this season unlike any other after last season was abruptly canceled. It was a shocking moment for the 2020 senior cheer squad.

“We were hoping at least we could get back to campus and do our end-of-the-year banquet,” Bruland said. “And they just got no closure. I mean, we did the best we could. They did have their senior night, but they didn’t get their March Madness experience they were wanting.”

The 2021 seniors are almost in the same boat.

Last season, the cheerleaders were in Las Vegas for the WCC Tournament before they were sent home with the basketball team for good.

Now, in a year unlike any other, the NCAA has determined that the risk of having more than the 25% capacity they have promised will force tough decisions to be made.

One of those decisions was to not allow any cheerleaders or teams’ bands in the buildings for the NCAA Tournament in 2021.

So, for the second year in a row, seniors on the cheer squad will be missing out on a yearly – especially for GU – tradition.

In a season full of pivots and flexibility, the cheer team is ready to show it is ready for whatever is thrown at them.

With Indianapolis or San Antonio (where the GU women are) not part of the equation again, Bruland and the university have put together a new experience for students this tournament.

The cheerleaders will be on campus with the GU Kennel Club, the dance team and the GU Bomb Squad in a safe and socially distanced watch party.

On the Quad, the grassy area outside of the Foley Library, the university will set up a large projector with 210 students in attendance.

For that watch party and those that will follow, the cheer squad will lead cheers for the students.

“I’m really excited for the program moving forward,” Bruland said. “I think we’ve done a lot of good things this semester. And it’s something I feel really proud of.”

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