ERIE, Pa. — Penn State Behrend’s competitive cheer team recently made history, earning the college’s first nationally ranked cheerleading trophy. The team, led by coach Kelli Carpinello, took second place in the 2023 NCA Collegiate Cheer National Championships, the highest-ranking competition for collegiate cheerleading, which was held in Daytona Beach, Florida, earlier this month.
Cheerleading is a club sport at Behrend, but Carpinello and the students involved in the club take it as seriously as a competitive sport.
“Sometimes, students hear the word ‘club’ and feel their attendance isn’t mandatory,” Carpinello said. “I make it clear in the beginning that I treat this much like a varsity sport, where they are expected to attend practices, workouts and everything that goes along with being a student-athlete.”
The team typically practices three times a week, and team members are required to work out at least twice a week on their own. Tumblers are asked to attend open-gym sessions weekly to keep their skills fresh.
Carpinello, who also works as a financial aid coordinator at Behrend, coaches two cheer teams — Game Day Cheer and Competitive Cheer — and the college’s Dance Team. All three clubs have grown considerably under her guidance, with more than 35 students participating in the 2022-23 academic year.
“We’ve seen a lot of growth in the past couple of years,” Carpinello said. “I believe that, post-COVID, people wanted to get out and do more. Most of these students missed out on memorable events at the end of their high school years and the beginning of their college years. This past fall, we had a record number of people, nearly 60, try out for cheer.”
We talked with Carpinello and Lauren Hanke, a member of the Competitive Cheer club, to learn more about cheering at Behrend and the club’s big win.
Q: What is your background with the sport, Kelli?
Carpinello: I was a cheerleader and dancer in my younger years. I danced in my youth, cheered in middle school and high school, was on a dance team at IUP for one year, and then cheered and danced for the Erie Invaders football team in 2000.
I was the assistant cheer coach at Edinboro University (now PennWest Edinboro) between 1997 and 1999 and the dance coach at Edinboro in 1998. I took some time off and began coaching cheer again in 2015 at Behrend. I assumed the dance team coach position in 2021. I am both adviser and coach for Behrend’s cheer and dance teams.
Q: Those are all separate clubs?
Carpinello: Yes. Game Day cheerleaders perform at men’s and women’s basketball games. The Competitive cheerleaders participate in local, regional and national competitions, including the NCA Collegiate Cheer National Championship. The Dance Team is another club.
Q: We’ve seen the Game Day team perform at games and events, and it’s obvious the group is inclusive and having a lot of fun. Is that something you try to cultivate, or is it just organic?
Carpinello: It’s a little bit of both. At the beginning of each season, we embrace the “team is family” mindset. I grew up as an athlete in various sports with various coaches and different styles, so I knew what kind of coach I wanted to be.
Q: What is the key to being a good cheerleader?
Carpinello: Experience and skill are easy to spot, but I look for someone who also has a good attitude, is coachable, will take constructive criticism and is a good teammate. I’d rather coach a student with a great attitude who is open to improvement than someone who is very skilled but has a not-so-great attitude. Ideally, a winning attitude and excellent skill is a cheer coach’s dream.
Q: Tell us about the Florida competition. How did the club fund the travel?
Hanke: We held several fundraisers during the year to help cover the cost of travel. The Student Activity Fee and Student Government Association were generous enough to pay for the registration fees to enter the competition. We are grateful that the school invested in us and gave our team the opportunity to represent Penn State Behrend at the national level.
Q: How long were you there? And how did the competition work?
Hanke: The competition was three days long, with routines starting at 8 a.m. and going until 9 p.m. We competed in the Spirit Rally Division. After our Day 1 performance, we were in second place, only one point behind first place. Our Day 2 scores were then combined with our Day 1 performance, which ultimately resulted in our team claiming second place. We were very proud!
Q: Were there any special moments or memories, from the competition or from this season, that you want to share?
Carpinello: There were many moments that were memorable, but for me, as the coach, one of the most memorable was a photo that one of the students’ parents took of our team clapping and cheering for Thiel, which had won first place. Their support was genuine and indicative of good sportsmanship. It made me very proud.
Hanke: The tradition at the NCA competition after winning a title is to run into the ocean with the trophy to celebrate everyone’s hard work over the past eight months. I think the team would agree that this was the most memorable experience for us. There were a lot of tears, hugs, and, of course, cheers!