Behrend cheer team wins national championship

The Penn State Behrend cheer team holds the trophy on the beach in Florida.

Penn State Behrend’s competitive cheer team won the NCA Collegiate Cheer National Championship during a two-day event in Daytona Beach, Florida.

Credit: Photo provided

ERIE, Pa. — In Florida, even before the team had completed its routine, Kelli Carpinello knew that Penn State Behrend was within reach of the NCA Collegiate Cheer National Championship.

Carpinello, the team’s coach, had come close to the national title before: In 2023, the Behrend team placed second at the NCA Nationals, the marquee event for the National Cheerleaders Association.

This year, in the preliminary round, the Behrend team earned the highest score in the open division for spirit rally cheer, a style of game-day cheer that uses call-back chants, tumbling and stunts to engage the crowd. The team was leading squads from the University of Texas, Tufts University and the Rochester Institute of Technology, among other schools.

“They knew what they needed to do,” Carpinello said. “We explained to them, ‘No one’s going to hand this to you. If you want it, you need to go out there and take it.’ And they did.”

Spirit rally is high-hype cheer: flags, signs and pom-poms, with a pep dance during the band chant.

“It’s very much what you would see at a large pep rally, or at a football game,” Carpinello said. “The difference is that at a football game, you have the whole game to get it right. At NCA, you get one shot — no breaks, and no timeouts. You have two minutes and 15 seconds to show them what you’ve got.”

Behrend finished with the top score — a 92, with no deductions. The Texas squad placed second.

“When we learned we had won, it was just overwhelming,” Carpinello said. “They had worked so hard for this.”

She and her assistant coaches, Karle Cortes and Tori Schau, had worked with the team three nights a week as they prepared for the event.

“Karle did all the choreography,” she said. “She spent countless hours giving this team an amazing routine. Both Karle and Tori are alumni, and they put all their extra time and energy into this program. I am forever grateful to them.”

Several members of the Behrend team had experience in competitive cheer. Others were new to the sport. The team included three former gymnasts, and three of the four male cheerleaders had never cheered before joining.

“They are so good together,” Carpinello said. “There is just something embedded in them: that no-fear performance factor. Some of them are really quiet, but when they get out on the floor, they just turn it on. A completely different personality comes through.”

The team celebrated its national championship at the beach. They carried the trophy into the ocean.

“That’s the tradition,” Carpinello said. “When you win, you run as a team into the ocean. It’s considered bad luck to touch the water before you win, so no one did. Not even me.

“My parents were there,” she said, “and before the finals, they wanted to take a walk on the beach. I said, ‘OK, but I can’t touch the water. Not until tomorrow.’”