The UCSB Cheer Team reinvented itself as a competitive group this year, taking first-place honors at Sunday night’s King of the Bleachers competition in Irvine.

The event marks only the second time in several years that the team has entered a competition, co-captain Lisa Val Verde said. Prior to this year, the team performed exclusively at school sporting events. Sunday’s victory earned the team jackets commemorating their win, as well as a monetary prize, the full amount of which has yet to be determined.

The cheerleaders also fared well in their first outing a few weeks ago, earning a fourth-place award at the 2006 USA Collegiate Nationals in Las Vegas. Their next competition, the U.S. Spirit Leaders Nationals – held at CSU Long Beach – is slated for March 5.

Val Verde, a third-year mechanical engineering major, said the 23-member team is not directly affiliated with the UCSB Athletics Dept., and is mostly self-funded.

“Athletics supports us with half our uniform expenses, and pays for us to travel with the [men’s and women’s] basketball teams to NCAA and the Big West,” Val Verde said. “Other than that, we’re on our own. We had to pay for the competition mostly out-of-pocket.”

For their routine, the cheerleaders generally focus on stunting, during which a member is held up or tossed in the air. Despite stunting’s popularity, the team faced a challenge earlier this year related to safety concerns over the maneuvers, said co-captain Desiree Castellon, a third-year psychology major.

“Early in the season, Athletics said that we couldn’t stunt at the games because it was a liability,” Castellon said. “They told us that we’re on the same level as the spectators.”

The team was forced to take up their case with Athletics, and was ultimately able to reach a compromise, co-captain and fourth-year business economics major Jaimie Eddington said.

“I called them and told them that stunting is basically all we do,” Eddington said. “Without stunting we’d be practicing to sit in a gym and yell ‘Go Gauchos’ for nine hours every week. They told us that we could sign a waiver, which basically says that if one of us dies they are not liable.”

Although the group won the right to continue stunting, the co-captains said the disagreement is one of many problems the squad faces, as they feel their sport is being marginalized by the Athletic Dept.

“The issue with stunting was the last straw,” Val Verde said. “It’s frustrating how Athletics picks and chooses how they want to deal with us. We’re easygoing and willing to comply, but we want them to take a step towards us.”

The team also felt slighted by the Athletics Dept.’s halftime ceremony honoring women in sports at the women’s basketball game Feb. 16, during which cheerleading went unmentioned.

“I think we’re a huge representation of women at this university,” Val Verde said. “We were not even acknowledged at the ceremony.”

Because UCSB’s Athletics Dept. offers only limited sponsorship, the group fundraises in order to help defray the costs of competition, Val Verde said. While the cheer team has a few local sponsors, including Costco and Domino’s Pizza Val Verde said, the team does not have a coach and is directed entirely by the captains.

The team practices its routines for around nine hours every week, Castellon said, and she hopes that with all its hard work, UCSB’S cheer program will eventually rival the sport’s top teams.

In spite of the challenges it faces, the club’s members are cheerful about its future prospects, and are making an effort to expand its size.

“Half the people at the school think that since there’s no football team, we have no cheerleaders,” Val Verde said. “A lot of students try out second year because they didn’t know. We want our competitions to continue and hopefully the cheer team will start to grow.”