By ELENA DE ALFREDO
UT’s cheerleading team finished eighth at the National Cheerleading Association championship (NCA) on April 8 at Daytona Beach Bandshell, being the last time for senior side base Alyssa Rodriguez to compete at the collegiate level.
Born and raised in Tampa, Rodriguez started as a competitive gymnast before starting her college career as a cheerleader. “When I came to UT, there wasn’t a gymnastics program,” Rodriguez said. “So, I decided to try cheerleading.”
Rodriguez came to the University of Tampa attracted by the accounting program offered in the school along with the desire of staying close to her hometown.
With her family by her side and being her number one fans, Rodriguez started to find love in something that before was completely unknown to her.
“Cheerleading has been a physical and mental challenge for me that I love,” Rodriguez said. “I didn’t know much about cheerleading before I started at UT, so every practice was a new learning experience for me.”
After her first year at UT, the Spartans cheerleading program changed the coaching staff to the one commanding today, with head coach Mannie Rotella in charge. Along with this new head coach, most of the athletes left, being Rodriguez one of the only ones that stayed as part of UT’s team.
Along with them, Rodriguez helped to build UT’s cheerleading program for the last four years as the team has been only eligible for this last two. Not only that was her motivation through her five years as student at UT, Rodriguez also wanted to help a program who would be able to compete at nationals.
“[Rodriguez] actually started one year before I even started coaching at UT–We lost nearly everyone from that first team I started with,” Rotella said. “Over the years we have had so many people that haven’t been able to stick out the tough days–Alyssa not only trusted me as a coach, but she kept teammates positive and encouraged them to trust the process as well.”
While cheerleading may not get as much attention as other sports, UT’s team practices just as hard as other varsity teams to compete at their highest level.
The team lifts weights two times a week and practices three times a week. Likewise, in the spring semester they meet with the stunt groups outside practice almost every day leading up to nationals to perfect their acrobatics.
“Cheerleading is not just another sport,” said her sophomore teammate Marisa Falgiatano. “You have to trust these people with your lives—they throw you 15 feet in the air and you have to trust them to catch you—i t is an amazing feeling.”
With hard work as their motor, the Spartans qualified last year to the NCA nationals, where they finished 10th. In March 2016, one month before last year’s competition, Rodriguez suffered a major setback in her cheerleading career facing a knee injury
“I took a fall at a practice and tore my ACL, MCL and meniscus,” Rodriguez said. “The recovery for this injury is roughly nine months to a year.”
With her willingness to come back as soon as she could, and her passion about cheerleading as her motivation, Rodriguez recovered by January and she was able to compete this year.
Not only she is an example of relentlessness, Rodriguez is also an example of a great leader and a great friend, according to her teammates.
“Alyssa is my best friend, and she is the biggest motivator and support that a teammate could ask for,” Falgiatano said. “ [Rodriguez] would give anything for her team—Last year she tore her ACL and yet she was on the sidelines pushing me and my team to be the best.”
Rodriguez is the kind of leader that stands out and has something special than other athletes. “Everyone on the team knows that if they need anything, Alyssa will be there,” Rotella said. “She doesn’t miss practices, she’s never late, she’s always ready to work hard, she volunteers for everything, and she has her teammates backs 100 percent of the time– She’s the type of athlete that you can count on.”
Now, Rodriguez could compete for her last time with the Spartans, leading the team to finish up eighth at the national level.
“For the last five years, I have made countless memories and friends through this sport—I have always been proud to wear a UT uniform,” Rodriguez said. “My team and coaches are my family and there is no other team I would be glad to take the mat with for the first and last time.”