On a sweltering Florida afternoon, prior to making history by winning the national championship, the FSU cheerleading team huddled together to listen to their coach, David Lombardi, preach words of wisdom.
“I believe in me. I believe in you. I believe in us. Together, there is nothing we can’t do – Rams on three!”
The team won the national championship with zero deductions and three points more than runner-up Montclair State University.
The road to the national championship was not smooth after not competing for a year due to the pandemic and a few cheerleaders contracting COVID-19 a week before the competition.
According to Lombardi, the journey to the championship began last summer at a cheerleading camp the team attended in Taunton, which secured them a spot at nationals.
He said the camp allowed the team to master advanced skills, such as learning complex pyramid routines, which helped the new team members adjust from performing high school skills to competing at a collegiate level.
Lombardi added cheer camp allowed him to learn the newcomers’ skill levels, their ability to work under pressure, and their compatibility with the returning cheerleaders during performances.
Throughout the school year, the team cheered at football games, honed their skills, and completed cardio workouts in order to keep in shape.
The Sunday before leaving for Daytona, Florida, the team attended a “send-off” performance at Bryant College, which was “one of the team’s worst performances,” because a few of the cheerleaders were recovering from COVID-19, according to Lombardi.
“It stopped us in our tracks, but that was the beauty of it. We used it as motivation to keep going, and the victory was that much sweeter,” he said.
Lombardi said cheerleading camp and the Bryant send-off competition were bonding experiences for the team, which set the tone for the championship.
“They could not have been closer. They believed in what they needed to do, what they wanted to do, and they came motivated. The kids work very well together – they are such a tight-knit group,” Lombardi said.
He added that the “veterans” of the team “welcomed the new members with open arms” and helped them adjust to cheering in college.
Lombardi said winning nationals was a team effort as “everyone had their moment.”
Although the team does not have captains, Lombardi said he relies on Kristina Giordano, Reymi Vargas, and Dani Achin as his “right-arm extensions” because they are older and they know what to expect from him.
Lombardi said he believes lack of competition these past few years due to the pandemic increased the team’s desire to win the championship title.
“The pandemic gave them that motivation to come back stronger than they were before. They needed to work harder to get to where they wanted to be,” said Lombardi. “As a team, we looked at it as a new start, a fresh perspective.”
Lombardi added, “I have always said to them that they have the ability to do something that no other team at Framingham has ever been able to do since Framingham started going to nationals in 1997.”
He explained that during his time coaching FSU Cheerleading, the team has always faced deductions during the national championship competition.
Lombardi said his goal for the national championship was for the team to have zero deductions and to “hit a full routine.”
Gretchen Heckler, assistant coach, began her journey with the cheerleading team in the fall of 2008, when she started cheering for FSU under Coach Lombardi.
She said Lombardi has a “very traditional and straightforward coaching style,” which helped the team win the national championship.
Heckler added Lombardi has “been in the cheer world” for a long time, knows what works, and understands the athletes well.
She said when they won, she was “speechless” as the team has wanted to win the national championship for a long time.
“To see this group of athletes be able to accomplish what they have this year has been a miracle. They pulled together when they needed to pull together – it is just amazing,” Heckler said.
She noted Lombardi’s dedication to the program and how winning the championship “means the world” to him and the team.
Heckler explained that a tradition for the college cheer national championship victors is to run into the ocean after being crowned winners.
“We’ve got top three a couple times, so watching them finally run into the ocean was a great moment,” she said.
Giordano, a senior liberal arts major, said this is her third year on the team and that she “couldn’t ask for better teammates.”
She said Lombardi and Heckler gave the team lots of tips on how to improve for nationals, which led the team to victory.
Giordano added that through the cheer team, she was able to “make a whole second family.”
She said winning the national championship was “one of the best moments” of her life and that as a senior, winning means a lot to her.
Vargas, a junior criminology major, said a few years ago, he was the only man on the team. He only performed during football games, and as he was the sole man, the team was still classified as a women’s team during competitions.
This time at the national championship, the team was classified as co-ed because the rule is there must be two or more men on the team in order for it to qualify as co-ed – and a male cheerleader from Vargas’ past joined.
Vargas described his relationship with FSU cheerleading teammate and former high school rival Jon Dailey.
“Jon went to Greater Lowell and I went to Greater Lawrence. In the cheer world, us going against each other was a very big rivalry, but on this team, being the veteran for him and the other rookies allowed me to be a better leader for the team,” he said.
Vargas said winning the championship was a “different type of win” because he won with Jon.
“With Jon by my side, we were finally able to bring the trophy home,” he said.
Vargas added although he has been cheering for 11 years, he has never been part of a team with a bond as strong as the FSU Cheerleading Team.
“We are a family. We treat each other like brothers and sisters,” he said.
Dailey, a sophomore fashion design and retailing major, said, “Winning nationals was the best feeling. We all knew we wanted to win since camp in August. We all clicked during the first few practices back in July and since then, we have grown closer each day.”
Dailey added he and Vargas became friends “very fast.
“Reymi knows so much about the mechanics of cheerleading. I grow so much just from watching him. Being the first two boys on the FSU competition team was also something very special that brought us together,” he said.
Achin, a senior English major, said when FSU was crowned champions, she realized that every struggle the team pushed through was “meant to be.”
She added that she grabbed Heckler and cried as the bittersweet moment was the end of her cheer career.
“Coach Heckler told me that every person on this team will always be part of this legacy, no matter where life takes us. I am so blessed to be a part of this team,” she said.
Hayley Shulman, a junior early childhood education major, described winning nationals as one of the best experiences of her life.
“Winning made all of the sweat, tears, and injuries worth it. I never thought I would be able to say, ‘I am a champion.’ It still does not feel real. I will forever remember the moment of hearing our name being called for first place,” she said.
Shulman added the support Lombardi has for the team “on and off the mat” is “insane” and since the team could not have won without his guidance, they coined the term “Davetona” because winning the championship was for him.
Sophia Cameron, a junior fashion design and retailing major, said, “To me, winning is all of the hard work we did that paid off.”
Amanda DeAngelis, a junior elementary education major, said winning is an “indescribable feeling” and that she has not been able to “wipe the smile” off her face.
“We brought motivation into this season. We have a strong bond and a common goal that we were willing to sacrifice anything for in the end,” she said.
Julia Taliaferro, a sophomore political science major, said although this is her second year at FSU, due to the pandemic, this is her first year performing with the team.
“To know that all of the work we have put into this team has paid off is a truly amazing experience,” she said.
Alex Connor, a freshman criminology major, said, “Winning nationals was so special because of the challenges I have faced personally and with the team.”
She added, “We would not be where we are and I would not be the athlete I am now without Coach Dave and Coach Gretchen.”
Juliana Therrien, a freshman elementary education major, explained that as this is her first year on the team, winning the national championship was “a crazy experience.”
“Honestly, I had no words. I called my mom and I started crying. She was confused and thought we lost because of how much I was crying,” she said.
Therrien added she has been cheering since the age of 7 and kicking off her college cheerleading career with a national championship win was an amazing experience.
Sophia Damore, a freshman elementary education major, said winning the national championship made her first year at Framingham “perfect.”
She added, “The team is always pushing for more – we really love each other.”
In an email sent to the FSU community, President F. Javier Cevallos said, “Please join me in congratulating the members of the team for their hard work and dedication! You’ve made us proud!”
Kathy Lynch, assistant atheltic director, said on behalf of herself, Tom Kelley, who is the athletic director, and Carey Eggen, who is the deputy director of the Athletic Department and Title IX coordinator, that watching the cheerleading team fulfull their goal of winning the national championship was “exciting.”
She added, “We are thrilled with Coach Lombardi and his team’s success at nationals this year. It is a testament to the hard work and dedication that the coaches and athletes put into the program.”
“We know that the future of the program is bright, and we look forward to seeing them on the sidelines next fall.”
[Editor’s Note: Danielle Achin is a Sports Editor for The Gatepost.]