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Spirit teams prepare for unconventional fall season, conduct tryouts virtually

Both teams have been forced to shrink membership and adapt to preparing for the fall season remotely

<p>Due to ACC mandates, both teams will be unable to perform on the field before, during and after football games.&nbsp;</p>

Due to ACC mandates, both teams will be unable to perform on the field before, during and after football games. 

Due to Virginia Athletics’ 10 percent budget cut announced just after the cancellation of March Madness this year, both Virginia Cheerleading and the Virginia Dance Team have been forced to conduct tryouts virtually and cut the size of their teams to 12 members each. Though neither group has started conducting in-person practices yet, both are preparing for what is sure to be an atypical football season.

Virginia Cheerleading is broken up into two teams — one all-girl squad and another co-ed group. In 2019, all-girl cheer had 21 members and co-ed cheer had 16 members, meaning that the squads have had to shrink by nine and four members, respectively. 

Coach Kelley Haney said that tryouts this year were conducted entirely online and consisted of an interview, tumbling and performing the Fight Song, as well as various sideline routines. 

Despite the tryouts taking place online, Haney said that the team has about the same number of athletes vying for a place on the squad. 

Since Virginia Athletics recently changed its logo, the cheer squad will need to update its uniforms. According to Haney, this will be a “costly adventure,” so the team is waiting for more information on what the fall season is going to look like before they begin doing so.

Finally, Haney said that the team’s practices are sure to change this year as the squad adapts to the fluid situation that the COVID-19 pandemic has put them in — because Virginia Athletics is still coordinating its plans with the NCAA regarding fall sports, Haney has no idea what the season will look like for either team.

“Our practices will look a lot different this year,” Haney said. “We are still working on that practice plan.”

The Virginia Dance Team has already selected its team for the upcoming year. In 2019, the squad had 17 members — thanks to this year’s budget cuts, that number has shrunk to 12. 

Typically the squad conducts tryouts prior to National Decision Day in May, but this year, tryouts took place virtually over the summer. Dancers submitted a video of them performing different skills, a jazz dance and one ditty — a short routine typically performed on the sidelines of football and basketball games. 

Sophomore dancer Bia Sajjad said that while not having in-person dance instruction made tryouts difficult, being able to practice a lot throughout quarantine made the overall process less intimidating. She also said that her teammates are trying their best to adapt to the situation and find ways to showcase their passion for dance and Virginia sports.

“It’s nice to know that everyone is doing their best to support each other as a team,” Sajjad said.

The dance team usually holds in-person practices throughout the summer — this year, they weren’t able to do that, which means the team missed out on valuable training time. Instead, the squad has been doing online workouts together over Zoom since tryouts ended.

College spirit teams are not subject to NCAA rules and regulations, so both Virginia Cheerleading and the Virginia Dance Team follow rules determined by the ACC and Virginia Athletics. According to Haney, the ACC has mandated that cheerleaders and dance teams are not allowed on the field at all before, during and after games. Visiting spirit teams are also not allowed at away games. Haney said that they may perform in a section of the stadium or on the lower hill of Scott Stadium, but Virginia Athletics is still working on the logistics of their performances though.

“We are evaluating the role of the cheer and dance teams at this time,” said Jim Daves, assistant athletics director for media relations. 

For now, both teams are preparing for the football season, which was slated to begin the week of Sept. 7 — along with all other fall Olympic sports — until Virginia’s opponent, VMI, postponed all athletic activity. As a result, Virginia will open its season Sept. 19 against Virginia Tech. Both the cheer team and dance team, however, don’t know when they will be allowed to begin in-person practices or perform at games, leaving their role in this season-opener up in the air.

Other than this budget cut, Virginia Athletics has implemented numerous other efforts to mitigate the financial losses imposed by the cancellation of winter and spring sports last March, as well as March Madness — a major revenue source for schools nationwide. In May, Director of Athletics Carla Williams announced that all 20 head coaches, 51 assistant coaches and additional staff had taken a voluntary pay cut in anticipation of the difficulties these revenue losses would impose. 

Even if the fall season does go well, however, Williams expressed concern that the department could still lose money. 

“We’re anticipating anywhere from a 15 to 30 percent shortfall and that’s if we have an uninterrupted football and basketball season,” Williams said.

Virginia Athletics declined to comment further on the nature of these budget cuts.

So far, four student-athletes have tested positive for COVID-19 after going through two rounds of mandatory testing since football players began returning to Grounds for voluntary training July 5. Three of the players who tested positive are members of the football team. There have been no new positive cases of COVID-19 among student athletes since July 24.

The University plans to resume in-person classes Sept. 8 — a two-week delay from its previous start date of Aug. 25 — with public health measures in place to maintain the safety of students, faculty and staff. Professor John MacKnight, a professor of internal medicine at the University and the medical director and primary care physician for Virginia Athletics, said that more students and teams returning to Grounds will create additional challenges for the athletic department to prevent the spread of the pandemic. 

“As much of a protective bubble as we have tried to put around them, the reality is that as the beginning of the school years approaches, those bubbles either become very small or they just flat-out disappear,” Macknight said. “That’s where we’re really going to have to depend even more heavily on the kids to make great choices and try to do the right things.”

Coach Bronco Mendenhall said that fan attendance at games will probably be limited to 1,000 fans in accordance with Phase 3 of Virginia’s reopening plan, and will be limited to mostly families of players and coaches. 

As of Monday, Virginia has 120,594 confirmed cases of COVID-19 — 847 of which were reported in the last 24 hours. The Thomas Jefferson Health District has 2,475 confirmed cases — 1,034 in Albemarle and 681 in Charlottesville.

According to the University’s COVID-19 tracker, by Friday there were 174 total positive cases among faculty, staff, students and contract employees — 135 of which are among students alone.  

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