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In Support of Women

A renaissance in coed cheerleading at Rutgers has revealed an athleticism that rivals the exploits on the court and field.

Courtney Teryek, Cory Orlando, Alicia Zerillo
The Scarlet Knights coed cheerleading team consists of nine men and eight women. Three years ago, Rutgers was unable to field a functioning coed team. Today, it is an impassioned group at Scarlet Knights basketball games. Cory Orlando lends a hand for Courtney Teryek, left, and Alicia Zerillo.  Photography by Nick Romanenko

A quartet of male cheerleaders surrounds a woman, lifts her off the ground, and tosses her high in the air. She stretches her legs wide, touches her toes, and falls back to earth, back into the waiting arms of the four guys. It’s a perfect rendition of the Basket Toss. Pleased, they do it again.

In a corner of an empty Rutgers Athletic Center, the 17 members of the coed cheerleading team are practicing, with ardor, their gravity-defying acrobatics familiar to any college basketball fan. But at Rutgers, the stunts are something new to see. Just three years ago, the university, lacking male cheerleaders, was unable to field a functioning coed team. This year, under first-year coach and former national champion Kenny Wisniewski, the team has nine men and eight women.

“It’s really love at first stunt,” says Wisniewski, a native of Middlesex, New Jersey. “When I first started, it wasn’t something I thought I would be interested in. But then you throw the girl up there and it’s like, wow, it’s really fun.”

Cory Orlando had no plans to join the squad when he transferred to Rutgers as a sophomore. After all, there were no guys inspiring the scarlet-clad faithful at Rutgers football and basketball games. This year, the journalism and media studies major from Washington, New Jersey, is the team’s lone senior. “You want to get the crowd involved,” Orlando says. “The more people we get out to games, the more interest we’re getting.”

Wisniewski aims to field a coed team good enough to enter competitions, and his ambition is not misplaced. He earned a cheerleading scholarship to the University of Kentucky, where he cheered for three consecutive national champion squads—he has a fat diamond ring to prove it—before graduating in 2006. And he had all the requisites of a good male cheerleader: strength, balance, and a solid work ethic. “A cheerleader has to have a good heart and want to do it,” he says. “I’ve seen guys come out and try to do what we do. If they’re not 100 percent into it, it’s not for them.”

For male cheerleaders, priority one is the ability to lift and hold aloft their female teammates in a variety of moves known as “stunting.” In the Toss Hands, for example, the male cheerleader, his hands at shoulder height and palms upright, holds the female by her feet. In the Liberty (named for a certain statue), the male holds a woman by a single foot while, balancing on her straightened leg, she bends the other one and stretches her hands to the sky. If you don’t have your stunts down, Orlando says, “you better give up cheerleading.”

In the fall, the squad rallied Scarlet Knights fans at football games, and this winter the team will lead the cheers at the men’s and women’s basketball games, the Big East tournament, and (crossing fingers) the NCAA tourney. Dom Vignali, a first-year student from Bridgewater, New Jersey, who’s been cheering competitively for five years, knew Wisniewski through World Cup All Stars, a cheerleading gym with a national reputation, based in Freehold, New Jersey. His favorite part of being on the coed squad? That’s easy. “Hearing a crowd of 50,000 people screaming while you’re holding a girl over your head,” Vignali says. “That’s, like, beast.”
                                                                                                                                               — Christopher Hann