People remember 1986 as a year of big hair and big fashion. At Incarnate Word, 1986 was also a year of big cheers and one giant milestone.
While the nation was jamming out to Mr. Mister and fist-pumping over “Top Gun,” a small group of what was then Incarnate Word College students were busy building a legacy of spirit and leadership that still thrives on campus today.
These days, UIW boasts a spirit program that competes on a national level and includes cheerleaders, a dance team and a mascot. But that wasn’t the case in 1986, when five students put on the university’s first cheerleading uniforms and began making appearances at athletic events.
Those first cheerleaders wore longer skirts, huge smiles and bangs as high as a basket toss.
“Hey, it was the ’80s,” said Monique Quesada ’91 BBA. “That was the era of big hair, right?”
Quesada served as co-captain of the first cheerleading team, which was developed under the sponsorship of Dr. Barbara Aranda-Naranjo, now associate provost for civic engagement.
In 1986, Aranda-Naranjo was director of student health services. Her prior experience as a cheerleader made her a natural fit for sponsoring the program. She jumped in enthusiastically, helping organize the program’s first tryouts. She also served an instrumental role in securing a sponsor (her husband, retired Chief Master Sgt. Sonny Naranjo), who provided funding so the cheerleaders could have uniforms and equipment for cheer camps to work on technique.
“Barbara was a big help,” Quesada said. “She provided a lot of guidance for us in getting funding and the necessary approvals on campus.”
The team appeared at basketball, baseball and volleyball games as well as other events on campus. “That first year, we were just trying to make ourselves known. We wanted to let students know we were there to support the school,” Quesada said.
For cheerleaders, having strong skills and technique is important. But Aranda-Naranjo also emphasized that they should display leadership qualities at all times. She instilled in them the idea that cheerleaders serve as ambassadors for Incarnate Word.
“They were good students,” Aranda-Naranjo said. “They knew that they represented the school not only in the classroom, but off campus as well.”
That focus on leadership continues today.
“A Lot Has Changed”
UIW’s spirit program has grown significantly since its humble beginnings. It now plays a very visible role on campus. Cheer and dance teams help with athletics promotions, participate in school fundraisers, and act as brand ambassadors for the university.
The cheer team has grown to 20 members, and they sport Adidas gear, which became the official athletic footwear, apparel and accessory brand of the Cardinals in 2015. They also spend 12 hours a week in practice focusing on skills and weight training. The program hosts two tryouts each year.
Director of Fan Experience Melissa Martinez, herself a former Spurs Silver Dancer, has led the program onto the national stage. The team now competes annually at National Cheerleaders Association Collegiate Cheer Championships. In 2014, UIW finished fifth in the Division I Co-Ed Intermediate Division.
Preparation for this prestigious and highly competitive competition occurs throughout the year, where many cheerleaders participate in specialized practice to improve on technique or skills such as tumbling.
“A lot has changed,” Martinez said in reference to the early days of the program. “But one thing remains consistent: cheerleaders are still expected to represent the university whether or not they’re in uniform.”
“We still expect them to be leaders,” Martinez said.
Martinez can list a number of exciting developments for the spirit program.
“At the start of each semester, each cheerleader, dancer and mascot are awarded a scholarship,” said Martinez. The spirit team began receiving the award during the 2015-16 academic year.
The program continues to grow in numbers as well. It could soon include as many as 30 co-ed members, and Martinez predicts that factors such as the jump to Division I competition and UIW’s football program will only continue to increase the talent pool available to coaches.
Quesada, who now provides customer service for USAA, said she was excited to return to campus to tailgate at a football game last season.
“It was amazing to see how much the campus and the cheerleading program has grown,” she said, “but I was glad to see that our cheerleaders still focus on leadership.”
By Cory Chandler