By Matthew Reysio-Cruz
It is nearing 6 PM on a rainy Friday night – at long last, the end of a difficult and tiring week and, for the majority of the University’s students, a cause for celebration.
For the UP Pep Squad, however, the day has just begun.
It has been two weeks since they placed first runner-up at the UAAP 76 Cheerdance Competition, held at the Mall of Asia Arena last Sept.15, following a three-peat championship reign.
There was no room to brood over the loss as they are now back to training – this time in preparation for the World Cheerleading Championships in Thailand in November, where the UP Pep Squad will represent the Philippines.
They trickle into the back door of the University Theater, where training is held each night of the week, including weekends. They arrive well ahead of the scheduled training time, careful not to be late, knowing full well the gravity of each second of preparation.
They were given only a two-day break in between the competition and the resumption of training, but these days were still spent performing during the halftime of UAAP Men’s Basketball games.
“Nasanay na rin kami,” was what co-captain Lian Melegrito had to say about the demanding training hours that go behind their awe-inspiring and spectacular routines.
Melegrito is a fifth year Sports Science student, who competed for the third straight time this year. She hopes to graduate this semester.
“Mga two days after iniisip ko pa rin siya. Triny kong ma-assess nang maigi yung mga days before the competition kung ano bang nangyari, kung may ginawa akong mali as a captain (Two days after [the competition], I was still thinking about it. I tried to reassess what happened during the days prior to the competition, whether I did something wrong as a captain),” she said, reflecting on the outcome of the competition.
The UP Pep Squad still managed to snag a podium finish, and have done so without fail since 1995. Still, the expectations were set high.
“Happy ako na first runner-up kami…yung acceptance lang talaga, matagal siya mag-sink in (I’m happy we placed as first runner-up, but it takes a while for it to sink in),” she said.
Melegrito remains certain though that there is no such thing as a loss – Simply the chance to be humbled, to take note of the needed areas of improvement, and come back hungrier.
“Instead of letting it get the best of them, I said to the team: take this as an opportunity to be better people, to be better cheerleaders,” she said.
The Road to CDC
The road to the UAAP Cheerdance Competition was far from easy.
Training this year began in summer, even earlier than usual, in anticipation of Head Coach Lalaine “Lala” Pereña and Assistant Coach Pio Opinaldo’s trip to France from July to August. The squad trained for almost six months in total.
“Mas maaga yung preparation namin this year kasi ayaw ni Coach Lala na umalis siya na wala pa siyang nakikitang kahit skeleton (We started training very early this year, for Coach Lala did not want to leave without seeing even the routine’s skeleton),” said Opinaldo.
Melegrito reflects, “[It was] weird, kasi wala pa akong year na nawala siya. Medyo naging stressful siya para sa captains as well as to the assistant coaches who had to take over.”
She added that Coach Lala still remained hands-on, as they updated her on their routine through Skype and sent her a video each day detailing their progress.
Fitting the routine within the six-minute limit and cutting or completely removing several of the dances were among the issues last to be addressed. These were details usually fixed by early August, but this year, it was only until the coach’s return on Aug. 28 – two weeks before the competition – when these were settled.
Things went relatively smooth-sailing from there, but Opinaldo recalled: “Sabi ni Coach Lala noon, ‘It’s too good to be true na maaga na matapos yung routine tapos walang mangyayari.’”
This proved to be true when, just 10 days before competition, one of the Squad’s top flyers fractured her finger. She had to be replaced, much to the team’s disadvantage.
“Even though we have reserves, her parts took a month to learn, so it was hard to replace her,” Melegrito said in Filipino.
She recalled how they had to do a trial-and-error on who would replace their injured flyer – they barely had enough time to adjust. This stretched their already extended training hours, which at that point already lasted until midnight.
The obstacles did not end there: exactly one week before the big day, the main base for the Group Stunt Category had to be replaced due to several injuries he had sustained throughout training.
Opinaldo, however, explained that they were always prepared with reserves and counterparts for backup.
Despite the many adjustments, Melegrito said no part was made easier.
She added that they faced an even greater challenge last year when their costumes arrived and they realized the material was unfit to handle the Squad’s rigorous routine. New costumes had to be made two days before the competition, and these did not arrive until two hours before the competition began.
“Kaya this year, sinasabi namin, ‘Wala pa ‘to compared sa nangyari dati so imposibleng hindi natin ‘to makakaya,’” she said.
The big day arrives
Minutes before their performance, Melegrito remembered the mood backstage to be strangely calm.
“Nagtataka nga kami kung bakit di kami kinakabahan (We were wondering why we didn’t feel nervous),” she said, “Siguro rin, dahil party ang theme, yung vibe namin sa backstage parang pa-party lang talaga (Maybe, because we had a party theme, our vibe backstage was really just that).”
She didn’t realize the different errors committed, including four major falls, until after the performance when she was met with the faces of several discouraged teammates backstage.
The falls, however, were minor compared to what happened to Leo Segundo, a junior who also competed this year. He stood as main base for the first pyramid, when a third-level flyer fell.
“Nahulog siya…and both her feet hit my face,” Segundo recalled.
For the rest of the routine, Segundo completely lost vision in one eye, which was bleeding internally, while he could barely see out of the other.
“I tried to smile,” he laughs, “pero hindi kinaya, so naka-squint lang ako the whole routine (I tried to smile, but I couldn’t bear the pain so I just squinted throughout the routine).”
In addition, the braces of another Pep Squad member lodged into his own gums, which then began to bleed, during the
routine. His photo, captured by Marc Henrich Go, instantly went viral online.
Melegrito said he didn’t even notice it until after the performance.
The UP Pep Squad are clearly loyal followers of the often-used theater maxim, ‘the show must go on.’ Physical injury, no matter how severe, was clearly not enough to dampen their fighting spirit or trump their desire to see the routine they had invested so much in all the way through.
More determined than ever
Melegrito said until the announcement, her expectations were really set on a four-peat finish.
“Ine-expect ko pa rin na mananalo kami dahil tinaas talaga namin yung level of difficulty this year. We pushed ourselves more than we’ve ever pushed before,” she said.
Losing the crown to the National University Pep Squad, Opinaldo said, taught the team a valuable lesson.
Opinaldo put the loss into perspective: “Ito rin yung nagbigay sa kanila ng experience na hindi kayo puwedeng parating nasa taas. ‘Yung pagkatalo na ito, extra motivation din sa kanila to be on top again next year, for them to prove that we really are #1.”
Melegrito knew that skill alone would not put them back on top. More than anything, cheerdance is a test of character.
Discipline is the name of the game, and each and every member of the UP Pep Squad lives by it.
“Kahit ikaw pa yung pinakamagaling sa team, if wala kang disiplina, huwag ka na lang mag-compete (Even if you’re the best in the team, if you don’t have discipline, you don’t deserve to compete),” she said.
At the end of the day, the UP Pep Squad’s passion and determination is fueled by something much larger than themselves – the strong and resounding support of the entire UP community.
Opinaldo said the team’s greatest motivation was to perform well for UP.
“Alam nila na wala sila dito sa kinalalagyan nila kung wala yung support ng UP community. So what they’re doing, their competition pieces, lahat iyan ay all for UP,” he said.