Cheerleaders, Rebelettes add life to OM football games
By John Davis, Oxford Citizen
Not long after the sun rises above the Grove and the University of Mississippi campus this Saturday morning, the Ole Miss cheerleaders and Rebelettes will be there to greet fans filing in for the game.
Hours before the No. 23 Rebels kickoff with No. 11 Georgia, the two spirit squads will have visited with countless fans, and started the process of getting them ready to cheer on Chad Kelly and Company to a win.
Arikka Harakal is the cheer coordinator at Ole Miss, while Carley Cryer is the coordinator for the Rebelettes. Each have been in their position for the past four seasons. Cryer is a former Rebelette, serving in that role when she was a student from 2004-2008. Both knew each other from the same spirit squad circles, and both said they are like “two peas in the same pod.”
Harakal, who came to Oxford from Dallas, Texas, said her cheerleaders practice three times a week for two hours leading up to a football game. There are also workouts, lifting and conditioning, that last an hour on the days they don’t practice.
On Saturdays, the cheerleaders show up between three and four hours prior to the start of the game. They meet and warm up and there a number of pre-game assignments like Fan Fare or meeting people in the Union Plaza and the Grove. Of course the cheerleaders are there to see the team go through the Walk of Champions.
“We’re there during the walk, greeting fans coming in and greeting the football team coming in and then from there we will go to the Grove stage where we will do our Grove cheer to get the fans ready,” Harakal said. “That will lead into when the band starts and the actual Grove show where we participate with the Rebelettes.”
Cryer said that her group does about the exact same thing on a Saturday. They meet four hours before the game and go through the different routines for the day. They freshen up and get dressed to meet for pre-game appearances.
“There are about four or five spots on game day. We split our groups up,” said Cryer, who has 30 on her team while the cheerleaders have close to 50.
“We split them up into all these different stations so we’re hitting everyone at the same time,” Harakal added. “It’s always a good response when we show up, whether it’s cheer or dance. The fans love us. We’re actually the people you get to talk to on a game day. You never really get to have that type of contact with a football or basketball player. We’re the closest thing you’re going to get to an athlete on a game day outside of Walk of Champions. I feel like that’s why fans are drawn to us. We’re more open to talk with people about what is going on in the Grove and that kind of stuff.”
The Rebelettes do cheer at times beyond just dance in conjunction with the Pride of the South. They practice with the band for two hours “four or five times” during the week, Cryer said.
“Depending on what song the band plays or the song they play over the speakers, we call the routine from there,” Cryer said. “We do communicate, but whatever the band calls, we go with it. We know on specific downs they have specific songs they play, especially on defense, so we know those routines are coming up. There are also some songs they play just on offense.”
For all of the newcomers to the cheerleading squad, Harakal said the Alabama game last week was an “eye opener” from a crowd standpoint.
“Going from Wofford to going to that, it was a huge change for them,” she said. “I think it’s what they expected, but I don’t think you can really prep someone and explain to them what it’s like. Words do not describe it all.”
“We tried to prepare our teams based on what we knew of previous years, the major games, the huge crowds,” Cryer said about the Alabama game. “We have to change this because of this or this is going to be really packed so allow for extra time, those kind of things. Then we also had Wofford and we could prepare for the heat. Those were the two big things, the heat and staying hydrated and the huge amount of people. For the past two games, I’ve been their water girl.”
Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze urged fans to show up early and be ready to cheer on the Rebels against the Bulldogs. There is always a fear that early starts will translate to fewer fans showing up for pre-game activities.
“And if they show up, they’re going to show up later. That’s the fear with the early games just because the fans may not really be awake yet,” Harakal said. “We already know that Fan Fare is going to be light because nobody is going to wake up that early. They will probably just wake up to go to the game. We don’t know what the Grove is going to look like. I would tell fans that if they can come early enough to come to the Grove show, which is an hour and a half before the game starts, I would say that’s probably a good way to get them kicked in.”
“And if they can’t make it for that, try and make it for the pre-game show for the Rebelettes especially,” Cryer added. “We are a part of the band as well and pre game is the best part and that’s when everyone is really getting excited. The band is playing the Hey song and there are the intro videos and then Hotty Toddy. You have to be there for that.”
Cryer, who coached two years right after graduating, said it was incredibly different now at Ole Miss compared to when she was in school.
“We felt supported back when I was on the team, but now that I see everything that the girls get and just the way they are supported by the band and in huge part by athletics, it’s crazy,” Cryer said. “They understand how important spirit squads are because they can speak well and represent our university. They’re more accessible than the football players or the basketball players.”
For Harakal, all the games slur together into one big day. She said each game has an issue and there is always a highlight of the game.
“For me, what it is, every time they get to put on the uniform and get to walk out those doors as Ole Miss cheerleading, that’s always the best for me, no matter what they’re doing,” Harakal said.
Cryer said that three seasons ago, a lot of great things started to happen in sports like the Rebels making it to the NCAA Tournament in basketball or the win over Alabama at home in 2014.
“It’s continuing to build and you think how can it get any better and then the next year it gets better and the next year gets better,” Cryer said. “Beating Alabama was huge at home. And then the Sugar Bowl last year was awesome. Then this past weekend was great. You hope for a different outcome, but it was an exciting game. When I was on the team, we never had College Game Day. SEC Nation wasn’t here yet and now they’ve started to come on campus. Katy Perry coming was huge because we got to meet her.”
This past summer, the cheer squad attended camp in Johnson City, Tennessee at East Tennessee University. Harakal said a lot of Big Ten schools were there.
“We used to go to Alabama in Tuscaloosa but that camp got way too large and we felt like we wanted a different atmosphere and not with the people that we are going to consistently see in the SEC all year long,” Harakal said. “We wanted to see something different, especially from a competitive standpoint. East Tenn was a great experience. The only SEC team we got to see was Kentucky, which we don’t get to see very often. It was nice to hang out with a new crew.”
Harakal added that this year’s cheer squad was the most talented one that has come through in a long time. At last year’s national competition, another aspect the team takes part in, the squad finished fourth.
“Us staying in the top five is kind of a new trend for us, which is abnormal for where Ole Miss has come from,” Harakal said. “We feel really good about our team this season and we feel like we’re going to stay in the top five.”
The nationals for dance are hit hard in December and January, Cryer said because they are also coming up with new routines for each basketball game. This past year, they made it to the finals and placed seventh in the hip hop category, which was “huge” Cryer said. Some of the spirit squad teams that Ole Miss competes against at these national events are just geared to the specific competitions. And all of the schools are as large, or larger.
“We are game day and compete. We want to be successful, but we don’t come in on Sundays and just have a nationals practice for five hours after a football game. We kind of prioritize a little bit different,” she said. “Their quality of life is important. We don’t want them to get burned out as much as we possibly can.”
“We are definitely blessed in the sense that our spirit teams actually love each other,” Harakal said. “We get along so well. We support each other. We all inter mix and that makes it so much easier if we have to be at a place. They’re all working together at events and games.”