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Cheerleading brings national title back to Bluegrass

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UK cheerleading won the UCA National Championship for a record 19th time on Sunday. (Chet White, UK Athletics) UK cheerleading won the UCA National Championship for a record 19th time on Sunday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
A year ago, the Kentucky cheerleaders experienced something they simply weren't used to: second place.

The Wildcats really wanted to win a fourth consecutive title in 2011. You can call them greedy, but when UK was dethroned by Alabama last season at the College Cheerleading and Dance Team National Championships, the Cats had no intention of experiencing second place again anytime soon.

"We won three in a row and just weren't able to get that fourth one," head coach Jomo Thompson said after the 2011 competition. "We just have to use it and focus hard on next year."

For the following 362 days, the Wildcats prepared for the 2012 Universal Cheerleading Association National Championship fueled by the disappointment of falling short. On Sunday, the UK cheerleaders returned the title to Lexington, Ky., yet again.

"I thought the kids did really well," Thompson said. "We had a good performance. We still had a couple mistakes, not major ones, so it wasn't quite the perfection that we wanted but it was good enough to beat our competition."

That pursuit of perfection is part of what has made UK cheerleading the dynasty that it is. Kentucky has won 19 of 28 UCA national championships dating back to 1985 and 15 in the last 18 years. UK won eight in a row from 1995-2002 and three straight twice in 2004-06 and 2008-10.

Thompson has now won seven championships as UK's head coach to go with the six he won as a team member and assistant. Each of the three times the team has fallen short of the title in his 10-year tenure, the Wildcats have rebounded to win the following year, which says all you need to know about the character of everyone involved with the program.

"I know most people would be happy with second place, but at Kentucky, we're used to getting first place and that's our goal," Thompson said. "When we don't get it, it's not that we're not appreciative of being up that high, but our goal is always to win the competition. That's the level of expectation that we have for this program. To always be able to come back and answer says a lot."

To answer in 2012 meant UK had to up the ante in its already difficult routine. The judges in 2011 awarded the title to Alabama largely because they perceived the stunts the Crimson Tide performed as more difficult than UK's. This time around, the Cats weren't going to let that happen.

"That's one of the critiques that the judges had: that Alabama did more than us last year," Thompson said. "We wanted to make sure we had the most stunts and the most difficulty out of anyone. We did that."

Even with all UK's historical success, but the talented group of coaches and team members is constantly challenging themselves to innovate.

"It's a creative process," Thompson said. "It's getting all the kids together, thinking about things, brainstorming and coming up with new and exciting ideas. I've been doing this for going on 13 years now and think sometimes we'll run out of ideas, but every year we're able to come up with things that have not been done."

Kentucky's difficult routine was not without a couple mistakes, but the fact that the Cats were able to perform in a high-pressure situation makes them deserving champions. While most athletic teams have dozens of chances to compete and hone their craft, the cheerleading title is decided in one weekend and just a few routines.

UK prepares for the pressure by performing in front of big crowds at high school events. The Wildcats also had a sort of final dress rehearsal at the last men's basketball home game in Rupp Arena on Jan. 7, which helped alleviate some of the anxiety once they were in competition.

"There's nothing like the actual experience of doing it, but if you can kind of trick yourself into thinking, 'Alright, this is it, I've got to get this done,' it makes it a little bit easier to cope when you actually get down there and it's time to do the real thing," Thompson said.

With the title now won, the cheerleaders will have a much-needed week off to rest of focus on schoolwork. Once they do return to practice, the Cats will assume their traditional role at UK events. In traveling with UK's second-ranked men's basketball team throughout a potential tournament run, the cheerleaders fully expect to be performing in late March and early April.

"We'll try to do some new things for the basketball games because we firmly believe our basketball team is going to bring home a national championship this year," Thompson said. "We want to make sure that when we go out and we're in tournament play and in the (Southeastern Conference), that we're the best cheerleaders along with the best basketball team."

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