North Texas Daily

While cheer supports Mean Green, O’Neal fights for more

While cheer supports Mean Green, O’Neal fights for more

February 13
12:27 2018

At times when the Super Pit is lifeless and the crowd seems disengaged, the cheerleaders are there to keep spirits up.

“Defense! Defense! Let’s go defense!” among other cheers ring throughout the Super Pit at every home basketball game. It is something the crowd has grown numb to at this point, but it is also a luxury they, along with the team, would sorely miss if it were absent.

Everyone in attendance knows the chants and the phrases by now. They have become synonymous with the North Texas athletic program, and it is because of the work of the North Texas cheerleaders.

This dedication is not an option for them. School pride and a love of cheerleading have kept those like cheer captain Skylar Myer coming back year after year, even now as a graduate student.

“It’s just been such a good experience, doing something that I love with the people I cherish the most and representing the university in such a positive way,” Myer said. “It’s a lot fun to be able to stand on the sideline and be a part of something [special]. Win or lose, we support the [teams].”

In college athletics, teams, along with coaches, are defined by their win-loss record at the end of a season.

For cheer coach Tracie O’Neal, those numbers are meaningless. She understands what’s important, and it is not the score at the end of a game.

Coach Tracie O’Neal, left, provides constructive criticism for the flyer in the stunt. Photo by Tate A. Owen

“No matter what the athletic programs are doing, we still have a job to do,” O’Neal said. “So, it doesn’t matter what the records are, our job is not going to change. The [cheerleaders] do it for the love and passion of the sport, to support and to be ambassadors for their university.”

Home for O’Neal has always been UNT. The 1999 graduate received her bachelor’s degree in marketing and later returned to get her master’s degree in education. While at UNT, she fulfilled her childhood dream of becoming a dancer for the North Texas dance team.

After spending time as a teacher and working in the corporate world, O’Neal grew tired of the everyday regiment and decided to return to her roots. Years later, she is now embarking on her seventh year as the cheerleading coach at North Texas. While most of her athletes describe her as a hard-nosed coach, they understand there is a method to the madness.

“She’s very old-school and very tough on us,” mat captain Jarrod Gonzalez said. “It’s a lot of love, and she only does it to get the best out of us. We wouldn’t trade her for anyone else.”

Assistant coach Danielle Lemmons coaching back tucks while holding her son. Photo by Tate A. Owen

Along with her athletes, the North Texas athletic department has also had their fair share of heated exchanges with O’Neal. UNT has gained the reputation among students for prioritizing student athletes over the needs of spirit groups on campus.

The North Texas cheerleaders and dancers do not have a facility on campus to practice in at their convenience. While the dancers are subjected to finding any random room across campus to practice, the cheerleaders use the busy Volleyball Center as a place to train.

Most facilities on campus are designated for education purposes or specifically for student athletes. Since cheerleading is not officially a university sport, they are forced to spend money from fundraisers to have a place to practice. If they are not spending money, they are working around other team’s schedules.

“I’ve been around this sport long enough, I kind of know where we stand,” O’Neal said. “That doesn’t stop me from fighting for things, for my kids, that I think that they deserve. I would do anything for a donor to come in and build a practice facility for all of spirit, cheer and dance.”

When O’Neal initially took the job at North Texas, she was facing an uphill battle. They did not have much money or the necessary cheer equipment to represent UNT. She spent her first five years looking to rebuild the cheer program from the ground up.

A part of the rebuilding process was leaving the athletic department to seek funding. As of January 2017, the cheerleaders are considered an organization of Student Activities. This move has allowed them to access additional funding from student services fees incorporated into tuition.

Previously, the cheerleaders would spend a majority of their money on practice space and competitions. Since transitioning to student activities, the need to fundraise has decreased, but it has not stopped O’Neal from continuing to do everything she can for her team.

“Moving into student affairs, nothing is given to you for free,” O’Neal said. “Yes, we have more money, but that means we also have more responsibilities and appearances and things we have to do for the president’s office. It’s been interesting trying to change into a new part of the university.”

O’Neal described the transition as a blessing, considering how far they have come over the past few years, both from a financial and team standpoint. That same level of gratitude has trickled down to the cheerleaders who credit student affairs for their transparency and understanding.

With competition season underway for the North Texas cheerleaders, their sights are set on having a good performance at the National Cheerleaders Association Daytona competition. The team will continue to adjust practice schedules to accommodate student athletes as they understand it comes with being a cheerleader at North Texas.

“It’s challenging but we also know our role,” O’Neal said. “The kids know their place. They know they’re not scholarship athletes, unfortunately. They know they’re not going to have the perks of a scholarship athlete, but they don’t do it for that.”

Featured Image: UNT Cheer warms up running through chant passes. Tate A. Owen

About Author

Jordan James

Jordan James

Sports writer covering Mean Green Sports and more

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