The University of St. Thomas Dance Team came home with its third national title in five years, winning the jazz category and placing second in the hip-hop category in the open division at the 2010 Universal Dance Association National College Cheerleading and Dance Team Championships. The competition was held Jan. 15-18 at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla.
The Tommies were pre-ranked in the No. 1 spot entering the competition, having qualified last November in a division that includes all DII and DIII schools from across the United States and Puerto Rico.
"It's really exciting to win that No. 1 spot going into the championships not only because it meant earning a full paid bid that covered our travel and accommodation expenses for the competition but also because it gave us a lot of positive momentum going into the next two and a half months of practices," coach Alysia Ulfers said.
Although ranked No.1, there was no guarantee of victory in Florida.
"Two and a half months is a lot of time for teams to prepare, so we knew we had to do all we could to make sure we were as conditioned and rehearsed as possible," Ulfers added.
With the qualification round over, the added pressure of the Tommies never placing lower than second at nationals the past six years was something Ulfers kept to herself: "I've got a lot of pride in the fact that we've placed first or second since I started coaching. I knew this year I had the strongest team yet, but the level of talent at the competition keeps getting better and better too. You have to expect that your competitors are going to make you work for it if you want to win. But to me, that is what makes it worth it. If it were easy, it wouldn't be so rewarding."
With the closing of O'Shaughnessy Hall in preparation for its demolition, the dance team lost its regular third-floor gym practice space and was forced to find places to rehearse during the weeks leading up to the competition.
"This was the most critical time for practice, but luckily we were able to squeeze into McCarthy Gym on south campus occasionally, but with it being the only gym remaining on campus, availability wasn't as we had hoped," Ulfers said.
The team jumped from place to place for two weeks, sometimes rehearsing at a studio in Chanhassen and other times dodging pillars in the Murray-Herrick Campus Center's ballroom.
"All in all, I think the change of space was actually a neat aspect of our training this year. Being prepared is key, so being able to perform the routines on any floor, in any location, at any time made the team stronger, more adaptable and extremely versatile," Ulfers remarked.
In Florida, competition for the Tommies started on Saturday, Jan. 16, at Disney's Wide World of Sports Complex. The Tommies danced well in the semifinal rounds of both jazz and hip-hop to advance to the finals. They entered the jazz finals holding first place, and in hip-hop they were a close second place. The hip-hop finals were held that evening.
"We've always been competitive in hip-hop, finishing as runners-up the past six years, but this year was the closest we've ever come to actually winning the category – only 5.5 points away from first," Ulfers remarked. "From semifinals to finals we closed the gap between first and second and left a huge impression on spectators and competitors."
Ulfers said that the team received an outpouring of encouragement and support from audience members, saying they thought St. Thomas should have won and how much they enjoyed watching the performance. "It's that kind of feedback that means more than a first-place trophy. We came to make a statement that we're a strong team in both styles, and we certainly accomplished that goal," she said.
Coming off the second place hip-hop finish, the Tommies were even more determined to win the top spot in jazz at the Sunday morning competition
"We came out of the semifinals with a safe lead, but everyone steps it up in finals. I knew we could have a stronger performance than the day before, and the girls knew it, too," Ulfers said. "This year's team has the best dynamics ever, so there really wasn't much need of a pep talk before they took the floor. The connection they have with one another is stronger than words can describe. They support, believe and trust each other, so all I needed to do was look them in the eye and I knew the routine was going to hit. It was their moment to shine."
And hit it did. St. Thomas won the jazz category for its third national title after winning in 2006 and 2008, defeating finalists from Orange Coast College (California), Lindenwood University (Missouri), College of St. Benedict (Minnesota), College of New Jersey, Northwest Missouri State University, University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, Puerto Rico-Bayamon and St. Cloud State (Minnesota), among others.
"I'm so proud of how committed the girls were toward bettering themselves as performers and their dedication to the team itself. I never take for granted how well they work together, how much they love to be on our team and how much pride they have in representing St. Thomas at the national level. Our success this year will be defined not only by a national title but also by the effort and passion each team member put forth at every practice, appearance, performance, training session and competition. I'll cherish every moment of this season," Ulfers said. "Coming home with a national championship is really the icing on the cake for me."
The St. Thomas Dance Team is led by senior captains Malorie Booth, Jackie Kling and Jessica Larson, and junior captain Rachel Chadima. Members include seniors Noelle Fabian and Kristin Seifert; juniors Danielle Blackowiak, Danielle Olson and Amanda Renz; sophomores Emily Burrington, Christina Omlie, Erin Paul, Lauryn Perdew, Kerry Rutherford and Kristy Schwintek; and freshmen Samantha Maroney and Kristen Olson.
The competition will air nationally on ESPN and ESPN2 starting next month and will continue throughout the year. The winning jazz routine can be viewed on the team's Web site. Full coverage of the championships can be viewed at Varsity.com.