Last updated on Sep 19, 2023
By Andrew Scarpaci, Sports Editor
On Friday, Jan.13, the LIU Cheer and Dance teams won the 2023 Open Spirit Program Game Day National Championship, held at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando, FL.
With a score of 184.1333, the Sharks won the competition over St. John’s University and South Dakota State. The Gameday-Spirit Division-1 Championship at the Universal Dance/Cheer Association (UDA/UCA) Nationals was the first time the two teams and LIU’s mascot “Finley the Shark,” all competed together for a common goal.
Cheerleading Head Coach TJ Bettineschi talked about the growth both teams made by working together.
“It was a huge adjustment for not only cheer, but dance as well. On Fridays, all of us were in the gym together. Our fight songs weren’t even the same, so we had to take choreography from dance and cheer, find a happy medium and recreate the entire fight song, which for a university should be one and the same, but it was not even remotely similar. So we went from having nothing similar to winning a national championship together, and it was incredible,” she said.
Dance Head Coach Kristen Greto assured the groups were fully confident in their abilities to work together and make it happen in their first competition together.
“It was a blessing in disguise. Coach TJ and I just hit it off right away. She came to me with the idea, she knew about this category. It was really awesome to see it all come to life. It was just a giant production and to see it all come together on stage like that, I was just in awe,” she said. “It was a beautiful performance, and I think the cheer team, the dance team, and the mascot all collaborated so well and got along so well. So that made the process easy and seamless as well. We all had that one common goal. We all said we want to win this, to show them who LIU is, and we did that.”
Mackenzie Daly, a graduate on the cheer team, re-affirmed the group’s efforts to prepare for Nationals.
“We would separately cheer and dance for practice, and then each week we would have a few practices with dance and the mascot, where we would put the things that we have been working on separately into one combined routine,” she said. “When we worked together with dance, I think that’s when we had our most productive times because we could see the full picture and see what it would look like on the Nationals match, so we were very grateful that we were able to practice with them.”
Daly has seen tremendous growth in the program, being one of the few Sharks left on the roster who also competed during the final stretch of the Pioneers era.
“The program has changed immensely from my first year not being Division-I. We didn’t do UCA nationals either, to winning five years later. That’s insane. I feel like we really stepped up to the plate in such little time,” she said.
Sabrina Giugliano, a junior on the Cheer team, believes the team put together an incredible showing that kept up with the competition.
“Even within three years, when I first came here, they competed in the Game Day category and All Girls, but I feel like the skills in both those categories have grown in the last three years,” she said. “We’ve grown as a team with the skills that we’ve been able to put on the mat, and the attitude and drive, has increasingly gotten more and more ambitious.”
With one more year left at LIU, Giugliano still has high expectations for the program’s growth.
“I wish to grow in the next year and hopefully defend our title if we have the opportunity to compete in this category again and just come out with the routine as a team while getting closer and stronger together,” she said.
Sirena Brown, a senior on the Cheer team, is proud of the tremendous accomplishments this team has produced, all the way from when she started as a freshman when the Sharks’ program was brand new.
“We just really wanted to work hard. It was all new, and we were all trying to grow together. So we just wanted to put our best foot forward,” she said.
Brown will always cherish her time here at LIU, and feels winning this championship could not be a better way to round out her career on the LIU Cheer team.
“I look back now as a senior, obviously winning is great, but when I look back on the season and the past three seasons, I think about the laughs and a lot of the bondings we’ve done as a team,” she said. “Just to have that win on top is just like a cherry on a sundae.”
Caleigh Kellerman, sophomore Co-Captain of LIU Dance, describes the work put in throughout the school year for when opportunities to compete for themselves arrive.
“We practice all year round. Since the national championship we won was primarily palm-based, we started with palm technique right when we started practicing in the summer,” she said. “We kept practicing it all the way through football season, and then we’ll dive into it during intercession when we have practice every day, twice a day for long hours.”
Kellerman feels this is just the beginning, and there is so much more left to succeed over her remaining years at LIU.
“I want to grow in jazz, my flexibility and confidence when dancing jazz. I think that as a team, we can push forward further in hip-hop, jazz and palm,” she said. “This doesn’t stop here. It’s great that we won the national title, but it’s only up from here, and I think that we will be able to grow as a program and achieve more and make further history with the program with the right work ethic and attitude.”
Allison Soltys, senior Co-Captain of the LIU Dance team, exemplifies the positive emotions displayed by everyone who took part in the journey when it was announced LIU won the Division-I National Showcase.
“I cried. I literally cried. It was just an amazing feeling, and everyone was shaking and happy with so much joy. It was just amazing,” she said.
Following the Sharks being announced champions on stage, the emotional roller-coaster was described as “disbelief,” “crazy,” “relieved,” “shock” and “honor” by athletes on both the Dance and Cheer teams.
Coach Bettineschi confirms she felt similar emotions when it was all over, and celebrating could finally take place following all the hard work.
“It was so stressful. We had to go twice, we came out of the semi-finals in first place, and when I found out we were in first place, I was stressed because that’s the hardest spot to be in moving into finals. So they just simply had to do exactly what they did in the semis one more time,” she said. “I was able to watch it from the side and kind of like communicate to them mid-performance, and as soon as it hit, I just started crying to the point where my girls, who had just finished their routine, looked to the side and saw me falling and they were yelling from the stage. It was really cool.”
Coach Greto had a similar takeaway following leading her team to victory.
“I was jumping up and down, squeezing my assistant coach’s arm, watching the girls and their faces light up. I saw Finley running all around the stage, and it was so cool,” she said. “I won my senior year in college, and I felt exactly how I felt that time in 2016. This is the feeling I felt, and I’m so excited for them to feel that way as well.”
Greto competed for four years with the St. John’s Dance team, one of the schools competing against the Sharks down in Orlando.
“That was also bittersweet. I’m always rooting for St. John’s as well. They got second, and we got first. At the end of the day, you support each other, and it’s all subjective,” Greto said. “You never know what could happen next year, but it was definitely interesting to compete against my alma mater.”
Greto believes this is not only influential for Dance and Cheer, but the LIU Sharks Athletics program as a whole.
“I think it’s a huge accomplishment. It shows LIU what dance and cheer do and what they’re capable of. It really puts us on the map. I hope that people recognize this win because it is a really big accomplishment for these teams,” she said. “These awards don’t get handed to you. You have to put in the work. That’s what these teams did, so I hope that athletics acknowledges it and realizes these kids and these athletes are working hard, so I’m excited for years to come and to get all of that support.”
Bettineschi had a similar sentiment, understanding what must still be done to prove why LIU deserved this honor.
“It’s a huge win. It’s not a win just for cheer or dance. It is a win for the entire spirit program. Right now, we are currently the best spirit program on any sidelines of a football game,” she said. “We set out to do this goal, Coach Kristen and I worked so hard together to make that become a reality, and it’s really cool to have that.”
This is Bettineschi’s first year coaching at LIU, and she could not be more thrilled with how quickly this program moved under her leadership, using the help of watching other top Division-I schools that they have been able to witness while traveling with LIU teams.
“I was on the field at Toledo, watching across the field, seeing what their coach was doing, seeing what their team is doing, and I was able to take a few things they did and implement it in a two-hour season, and it proved to be very beneficial,” she said. “That was a great opportunity that we got to travel for that game, and as a coach, it was awesome to see how much I could grow before our first home game.”
Greto, a professional dancer for the Brooklyn Nets at the Barclays Center, appreciates the luxury of being able to coach the upcoming talent in the dancing world, watching them perform just down the road at the Steinberg Wellness center on the Brooklyn campus, along with Post.
“It’s awesome, and it’s the best of both worlds. I get to pass on a lot of my knowledge to the younger dancers. Between Post and Steinberg Wellness Center, seeing the girls dance at the basketball games there, it’s such a joy,” she said. “I will say it’s a lot on my plate, a lot to juggle, but because I love them both so much, it makes it that much more worth it.”
Bettineschi has one final goal going forward.
“Defending the title because what we did was different and unique, and Coach Chris and I studied hard for it, trying to find ways to make LIU stick out and what can we do differently that would score high,” she said. “Now we have a target on our back, and we shaped the way the division is going to look moving forward into future years. It’s staying ahead of the other teams and constantly thinking of new ways to impress the judges, score high and defend that title.”