It was nearly midnight when the Ole Miss cheerleading teams made it back to Oxford on Monday, only hours before the start of a new semester.
It had been a whirlwind weekend in Orlando competing against the best teams in the nation at UCA Nationals (Universal Cheerleaders Association), prefaced by six weeks of two-a-days and Ole Miss basketball games.
Cheerleading coach Ryan O’Connor wasted no time reminding her co-ed and all-girl teams not to lose focus.
“Every team in the country is tired right now,” O’Connor said. “They all have school tomorrow. Work starts now.”
The teams won’t resume their regular practice schedule for another two weeks, but O’Connor knows mental strength is critical.
And maintaining a winning mindset this time of year isn’t easy.
When O’Connor made the move to Oxford in 2017, she brought with her a standard of excellence that has already transformed Ole Miss cheerleading.
For one thing, O’Connor likes winning championships. And she’s pretty good at it.
She won five UCA national titles as part of the famed cheer team at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School (coached by her mother, Donna Martin) and another in college while cheering for the Alabama Crimson Tide. On top of that, O’Connor’s three years cheering for US National teams yielded three world titles.
She placed an immediate focus on two areas when she took over the program at Ole Miss: improving game-day presence and boosting the program’s graduation rate. She says once the teams began to grow in those areas, competition success followed.
“We’ve brought in more talent because we focused on what we should focus on,” O’Connor says. “It’s about holding them accountable and reminding them we’re not here just to cheer, but to get a degree.”
O’Connor stays involved with each cheerleader’s classes throughout the semester to ensure they’re staying on track and requires regular study hours.
Raising academic and performance standards resulted in two significant wins for O’Connor in 2018 with an All-Girl Game Day national title in Orlando and the highest team GPA in recorded history.
Not everyone was on board with the changes she implemented her first year, she says, noting the number of rookies on this year’s teams.
First-year cheerleaders make up 50 percent of this year’s all-girl team and more than half of the co-ed team—a mix of fresh ambition and seasoned leadership that made all the difference during a bittersweet weekend at UCA Nationals.
Ole Miss’ all-girl and co-ed teams ended up with top-five finishes in Game Day competition. Traditional competition was another story. While the all-girl squad walked away with a seventh-place finish (its highest to date), the co-ed team didn’t make it out of semifinals.
“We hit that routine multiple times, but we saved our worst performance for Orlando, and there’s just nothing you can do,” O’Connor says. “I was really proud of my co-ed team because they weren’t mad about it. They were sad. They didn’t blame their teammates because we’re not that kind of team and not that kind of people.”
Not everyone returns from competition ready to hit the ground running, but O’Connor says she’s grateful to have “motivators” on both teams who are already working toward next year’s competition.
“The spring is when you find out who needs to come back next year because you see who is going to stay motivated and who’s using this time to make themselves better,” she says. “I have a really great group of students who deserve all the praise in the world.”