Feels Like Team Spirit

Delle Willett '64 and Amy Bodnar '06


Cheerleaders. The word triggers images of beautiful young women who dazzle sports fans with their intricate dance routines, eye-catching uniforms and gravity-defying stunts.

Not so 50 years ago at the University of San Diego, then a community of less than a thousand students, many of them nuns and seminarians who were divided into separate men’s and women’s campuses.

“We tried out in the men’s cafeteria,” says former USD Alumni Board president Delle Willett ’64, who, as a sophomore in 1961–1962 won a spot on an early Toreros cheerleading squad. “It was very low key. One of the boys did a back flip. The rest of our routine was jumping, shaking our pompoms, cheers and chants.”

The girls’ uniforms were equally simple — blue, knee-length pleated skirts, topped by heavy white sweaters. Still, Mother Frances Danz, then-president of the women’s college summoned the young women to her office to personally inspect their attire.

That first squad of three women and three men marked the start of an ongoing tradition. Variously named — cheer team, yell team, spirit team (and now including the university’s dance team) — these champions of school spirit have fired up Torero fans and athletes for generations.

Willett looks back fondly on her time as a cheerleader. “It was fun being in front of people at the games, getting everyone excited, going on road trips,” she recalls.

The one-sleeved mini dresses and infectious dance routines that characterize today’s spirit team dancers would never have passed muster five decades ago. But even after half a century, cheering for the Toreros is still fun.

“It was really exciting right away,” says sophomore communications major Alexis Swanstrom, a spirit team member last year who now cheers for the San Diego Chargers National Football League team. “And right away I made some of the greatest friends.”

Last summer, Willett came up with the idea of organizing a spirit team alumni group to renew such friendships and enable former cheerleaders and dancers to boost school spirit once again.

“The people who are in front of others at games are well known; they have a higher profile and tend to be campus leaders,” Willett explains. “So, if former spirit team members get involved with USD again and reach out to their classmates, it will help the university attract more alumni and more support, financially and otherwise. And the people who come back will be reconnected to friends, so everybody wins.”

Willett, who chairs the Alumni Recognition Committee, found an enthusiastic planning partner in Amy Bodnar ’06, herself a dance team alum who returned to Alcalá Park last July as the spirit team’s new head coach. Bodnar saw advantages for the university and spirit alumni, as well as current team members.

“Dance team for me was the biggest part of my life at USD,” she says. “I want today’s members to know this isn’t just a team they participate in now, but they’re part of a network of alumni who have done this before.”

Willett and Bodnar worked with the USD Alumni Association to compile a partial list of spirit grads and invite them back to campus during Homecoming 2012. About a dozen alumni — plus family members — attended the first annual spirit team reunion breakfast held last October. More have since re-engaged through social media.

By next year, Willett and Bodnar plan to comb through stacks of old yearbooks to identify and invite all former cheerleaders and dancers to re-engage with their alma mater.

“The main reason is the power of our social network,” Willett says. ”The people in the cheering business have the capacity to bring back people to campus, and we need to mobilize and use that power to help the university.” — Sandra Millers Younger

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