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On My Mind: Melissa Shipman, Avila University cheer coach

Melissa Shipman, the cheer coach at Avila University

“Attitude’s really the biggest thing. I want somebody that’s going to work hard for me. I put in a lot of time for this and so do my other assistant coaches. We are definitely willing to bust our tails for them, and we need to know that they’re going to do that for their team, too.”

MELISSA SHIPMAN

Head coach, Avila University’s cheer program

Melissa Shipman has her hands full this school year looking after the 35 females in her life: 34 of them wear cheerleading uniforms, one is in diapers.

The 29-year-old head coach of Avila University’s all-girl cheer team is also mommy to 1 1/2-year-old Mallory. Over the summer she got to spend a lot of time with the baby while husband Andy Shipman, pitching coach for the Kansas City T-Bones, was busy at his job.

But Avila’s first home football game is Sept. 8, and there’s a new season to prepare for, with the biggest cheer team the school has ever had.

(And cheerleading isn’t even her full-time job: The Northland resident works for a Chicago-based restaurant marketing company.)

In addition to doing community service, the cheerleaders are making noise at the UCA/UDA national college cheerleading championships. The team has placed fourth in its division — its highest-ever ranking — twice in the past three years.

“I know they’re such good leaders. Not only on my team, but on campus in general,” Shipman says. “I’m really, really fortunate to have such great kids.”

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“A few years back, we tried to add some guys, but to be honest, it just wasn’t the core of what we did, so we stuck with what we were good at. One of the greatest things about Avila, it’s one of the best all-girl programs here in the Midwest. When I was in college, I just thought that the only option was to be a co-ed cheerleader. I didn’t really know that there were all-girl programs out there. It’s such a good opportunity, especially for young girls to know that they don’t have to be 4-foot-11 and 95 pounds to be a cheerleader in college.”

“I treat recruiting exactly the way that any other college coach is going to treat the recruiting process . I start watching them as young as sophomores in high school, and you kind of stay up on them. By the time they get to be seniors you want to really be fresh in their mind as far as being one of the top programs that they’re thinking about picking. We recruit pretty heavily from the Kansas City area.”

“I absolutely want someone who is not afraid of hard work. Our typical week we practice four times a week, and we do strength and conditioning practices on top of that. We have games one to two times a week. Realistically, you’re looking at anywhere from five to six days a week that you’re doing something cheerleading related. I need to know that they know that expectation up front. That’s really what it takes as far as being a college cheerleader.”

“I need good students. Because ultimately, they’re here to go to college. And I need to know that they’re going to be studying and they’re going to be going to class and I’m going to have an eligible cheerleader. … They’re physically going to be more fit, just because of how much activity they’re doing. I encourage them to have as healthy a lifestyle as possible. We spend a lot of time talking about that.”

“There’s always the whole debate, is cheerleading a sport? I don’t think it’s about whether or not it’s a sport. What I do, I’m coaching college athletes. Anybody who doesn’t believe it, I tell them just to come to one of my practices. It’s hard, being a cheerleader. We have more injuries than a lot of other college programs out there. Cheerleading in college is a dangerous sport, and you have to be a strong athlete in order to be good.”

“Concussions are definitely a huge risk factor. We have sprained ankles, things having to do with ankles quite often. We’ve had torn ACLs, a torn Achilles tendon. We get shoulder injuries a lot. It’s literally all over the board.”

“It can get expensive, to be honest. The school buys the uniforms, and they get to use them and turn them back in at the end of the year. As far as their pompoms and what we call their mock turtlenecks, things like that … stuff they’re going to be using pretty much on a daily basis, they actually will pay for that. … We fundraise a ton throughout the year as far as travel (expenses), especially for our national trip.”

“The level of competition is huge. When you go to school on a cheerleading scholarship, you’re going because you want to compete. It’s not necessarily about cheering on the sidelines. These big schools with awesome football programs and basketball programs, of course it’s so much fun to cheer for them on the sidelines. But to be honest, a lot of girls will turn down those opportunities in order to come to a school like Avila, where they can get that competitive nature.”

“It’s amazing really for me to watch these young ladies that have a never-say-die attitude. It doesn’t matter if they’re the underdog; it doesn’t matter what challenges they’re up against. They’re fighters. And it’s so fun to watch them come together and just be sisters. I’m not quite old enough to be their mom, but I am old enough to be their big sister, so you have a passion for what’s going on in their lives and watching them grow.”

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