Cheer team program rising by leaps and bounds

UIU cheerleading coach Tony Morris praises his first-year squad for setting the bar for future Peacock cheerleading teams.

Similar to the traditional pyramid stunt, Upper Iowa University co-ed competitive varsity cheerleading coach Tony Morris and his newly formed team have set the bases, moved the spotters into the appropriate locations, and are now readying the flyer to be placed into position as the Peacock cheerleading program continues its revival.

In May 2013, UIU students formed a cheerleading squad through a grassroots effort. The program became recognized in 2014 as a varsity sport within the UIU Athletics Department thanks to a $1.5 million endowment by alumna Diane Harms ‘73.

The Diane Kinkead Harms Cheer Endowment funds a full-time head coach, as well as operational costs to ensure longevity of the program. An additional $150,000 gift from Harms provided immediate support to fund the program’s operations in its first two years.

Morris was serving as cheerleading coach, spirit coordinator, and student development/academic success advisor at Tabor College in Hillsboro, Kan., when he applied for the newly formed coaching position at UIU.

“The neatest thing I saw in the (UIU) cheerleading position was the opportunity to create a program from the ground floor, the opportunity to make it my own, and not having to worry about implementing changes to something already in existence,” Morris explained. “I believe it was an opportunity that anyone in a leadership role would love to have.”

Prior to his initial visit to the Fayette campus, the first-year UIU coach explained that he underwent an initial telephone interview for the position in May 2014.

“Throughout the entire process, it was the most comfortable interview I had ever experienced,” said Morris. “It not only felt like I had already been on the Fayette campus, but I was already part of the UIU family. Everyone made me feel so extremely comfortable.”

First introduced to the world of cheerleading during his senior year at Penn High School in Mishawaka, Ind., the former Kingsmen mascot smiled while explaining, “During practice one day, I threw my first girl in the air, and I was hooked. Later, I learned there were actually cheerleading scholarships available, and I decided to stick with the sport while I pursued my degree.”

The South Bend, Ind., native graduated from Bethel College, Ind., in 2001. He holds a BA in early childhood education with a music endorsement. Possessing an enormous passion for competition, Morris is extremely proud to have served on the Bethel cheerleading squad. Although a NAIA school, Bethel competed against Division II colleges and finished in the top 10 competition each year that Morris was a member of the squad.

“Although I enjoy the competitions and various camps, nothing compares to the game day experience,” he quickly stressed. “The excitement of that entire atmosphere is what you as a cheerleader work for each and every day.”

Morris admitted he stumbled into the coaching side of cheerleading while a junior at Bethel. A local high school was in need of an assistant coach and after earning the position, he was later hired as the program’s head coach.

“A lot of athletes want to be coaches. While I enjoy developing the skills and work ethic into the team members, I love teaching them how to become coaches themselves,” noted Morris, whose accolades include being named the 2001 National Cheer Instructor of the Year and 2013 Kansas Collegiate Athletic Conference Cheer and Dance Coach of the Year.

Two related challenges Morris initially faced upon his hiring at UIU were gaining exposure for the newly found cheerleading program and recruiting athletes that possessed the skill levels to make “UIU a top cheerleading destination and program in the cheerleading world.”

“I had to put together a team of male and female cheerleaders that had a ‘collegiate’ appearance. On game day, they had to possess the skills to lead the crowd,” he explained. “There is a huge difference between the high school and college levels, not only in athletic abilities but even on the mental side of things.”

“We do not drop at UIU. It’s not an option. Once they (cheerleaders) are on board, they are committed to each other and the program,” he continued. “They come to understand if you work hard, all of the benefits will follow.

“Peacock cheerleaders quickly learn that practice is where you make mistakes. You don’t make an error in front of the crowd or you lose respectability. Instead of the crowd anticipating your next move as you display the collegiate ‘wow’ factor, they are watching to see where you will fall apart next,” Morris emphasized.

In addition to playing a major role in the game-day experience, Morris noted cheerleaders are often the most accessible athletes and their duties include mingling with audiences, signing autographs and participating in similar promotional activities.

Morris praised the efforts of his first-year squad, saying, “They were a great group of young people who laid the foundation for a program we will continue to build. Like all new programs, we had our growing pains. The first battle was transforming them into a collegiate-level team. After they understood my mindset, they started buying into what we were trying to achieve.

“It was more of the same when it came to each game day. They have set the bar for future UIU cheerleading teams,” he added. “I felt this year’s turning point came when the basketball team played UNI in this past season’s exhibition game in the UNI-Dome. It was also our first real road test, and they (cheerleaders) not only rose to the occasion, but they looked like they belonged performing beside the UNI squad.”

More recently, Morris completed tryouts for the 2015-2016 Peacock cheerleading team. He anticipates naming 20-25 student-athletes to the second-year squad. In addition to its regular game-day performances, the new team will begin preparations in the near future for the first competitive cheer team in UIU history. An additional goal is to name separate coed and all-girl squads in 2016-2017.

The pyramid is nearly complete.

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