At this weekend’s Homecoming game, all attention will be on the football field. But glance down the sidelines and you’ll hear the cheers of a different Gryphon squad, one that traces its origins to a group of students propelled by little more than homemade uniforms and school spirit.
Jamie Baxter was one of those students. It was 1988 and Baxter heard from a friend the University’s athletics department was looking to re-launch a co-ed cheer squad after years without on. The marketing and consumer studies student decided to join.
“I knew nothing about cheerleading, but signed up to help get the new team started,” he says. “Really, few in the bunch knew what we were doing at first.”
As one of the senior members with a background in gymnastics, Baxter was chosen to co-lead the team with fellow student Lori Barbato. An experienced co-ed cheer coach from a local high school was brought on to help, and the team got to work learning how to cheer.
“We kind of built the plane as we were taking off,” Baxter says. “We didn’t even have uniforms for our first event, which was Homecoming; we had T-shirts. But we were scrappy. We eventually fundraised for uniforms and fundraised for a new mascot too.”
‘It was mostly about getting the crowd going’
The cheering itself wasn’t the athletic spectacle of flips, pyramids and basket tosses fans expect now from the squad.
“We had a few tumblers and experienced stunters, but we were not masters of the biggest tricks,” says Baxter. “It was mostly about getting the crowd going. We did some lifts and fumbled around a lot, but we had a heck of a fun time.”
For the next few years, the co-ed cheer squad pushed on, travelling to Boston University to train with college teams in the U.S. where cheerleading is a serious sport.
They performed at Gryphon Football games and later at basketball games during the “House of Slam” years when the Gryphons were unstoppable, winning the OUA men’s basketball title before heading to nationals.
Baxter graduated in 1991 and eventually became a cheer coach himself, working first in Toronto and then at the University of Nebraska, spending the better part of a decade with the National Cheerleaders Association.
Other members of the original squad graduated, scattered across the country and the team mostly lost touch with one another.
The co-ed squad itself lost some of its momentum and went dormant for a few years, until 2010, when current cheer squad coaches Cari-Ann Young-Murphy and husband Aaron Murphy came on board.
“We did really well right away and by 2012, we had so many skilled and talented people trying out, including guys, we decided to get the co-ed team going again,” says Young-Murphy.
Cheerleading now a major competitive sport
U of G now boasts two award-winning cheerleading teams – one co-ed and one all-girls – built from the more than 100 people who try out each year. Young-Murphy says the cheerleading of today has changed “tremendously” since the late 80s.
“It’s a massive sport now. It’s a lot more physical, a lot more toss-heavy than it would have been 30 years ago when it was mostly about being sideline cheerleaders,” she explains. “It requires skills in dance, gymnastics and acrobatics and just pure athleticism.”
This weekend, Baxter and several members of the original co-ed cheer squad will be on campus to witness some of that skill when they return to U of G for a cheerleading reunion organized with Alumni Affairs and Development.
They will tour the Gryphon Football facilities – which have seen several improvements in the last 30 years – meet the current cheer teams, and then head to the VIP area of Alumni Stadium to watch the Gryphons take on the York Lions.
Baxter is looking forward to re-connecting with former team members, looking over old photos and sharing memories of a grassroots cheerleading team that has gone on to become two award-winning teams.
“Maybe this reunion will start a new trend,” he says, “and we make it a tradition to come back every five years.”