Austin Bayles, Brooke Dumas and Mackenzie “Sherbs” Sherburn made the jump to Lubbock after helping their junior college competitive cheer squad earn its 14th national championship last April.
If you haven't finished "Cheer," one of Netflix's newest docuseries, be warned: spoilers ahead. Netflix dropped the six-episode instant hit on Jan. 8, introducing viewers to the competitive cheer squad at Navarro College. The junior college is in Corsicana, Texas, a small town of about 24,000 people located about 50 miles south of Dallas.
The docuseries follows the squad during its 2019 journey to the National Cheerleaders Association (NCA) & National Dance Alliance (NDA) Collegiate Cheer and Dance Championships, held every April in Daytona Beach, Florida. The episodes also feature the cheerleaders at Trinity Valley Community College, the only other school in Navarro's NCA & NDA division and their main competitor.
But if you watch closely, you'll see a familiar symbol of another university pop up throughout the series. About seven minutes into the opening episode, it makes its first appearance: the Texas Tech University Double-T. After that first time, it pops up again and again, on clothing, accessories and, finally, on the uniforms of a Texas Tech cheer squad as they perform onscreen for about 30 seconds in the fifth episode.
To those within the world of competitive collegiate cheerleading, the inclusion of the Texas Tech Spirit Program in the docuseries is not much of a surprise. Neither is the fact that three of the cheerleaders featured on the show are now Red Raiders – Austin Bayles, Brooke Dumas and Mackenzie "Sherbs" Sherburn all made the jump to Lubbock after helping the Navarro squad earn its 14th national championship last April.
"Since Bruce Bills and I have been here, almost 18 years, we've been getting students from these two junior colleges," said Stephanie Rhode, director of the Spirit Program. "I think one of the biggest reasons is because a lot of these students want to have a Power Five college experience after they attend and compete at a junior college. In collegiate cheerleading, the university in Texas that competes at the highest level, Division IA, is Texas Tech. For students coming out of one of these junior colleges, they win there, and then they would like to win at a higher level. That's us."
While Navarro has just one competitive co-ed squad, Texas Tech has a Co-Ed Cheer Squad, which includes Bayles and Sherburn, and an All-Girl Cheer Squad that includes Dumas.
Bills, the Texas Tech head cheer and mascot coach, said between the two squads this year, there are eight alums from Navarro and 10 from Trinity Valley. He said those years of training at a junior college can be crucial to students' development as athletes and their preparedness for eventually cheering at a large university.
"It's a great relationship that we have with both Navarro and Trinity Valley," Bills said. "Students can go there and really get a lot of hands-on training so that, when they transfer here, they're already at that top elite status to where they are able to jump right into our game-day elements and the national components, and they're ready to go. I really value what they do at the junior college level."
Making the transition
For Bayles, a junior kinesiology major from Hutto, cheering at a large university had been a dream since childhood. After Navarro, Texas Tech was the natural next step.
"There are a ton of universities with talent out there, but a lot of people who attend the junior colleges look here as an option," he said. "It's a great school overall, especially because of the way Bruce has helped grow this program tremendously. They continue winning, and they get more and more talent each year, which really draws people in. But it also is a great school to get your education and a good town to live in. I feel like, even if I wasn't drawn here for the sport, I would still be drawn here because of the atmosphere at Texas Tech."
Dumas, a sophomore pre-nursing major from Katy, said in addition to the cheer program, her family ties to the university helped her decide on Texas Tech.
"I've wanted to attend Texas Tech since I was a kid because my uncle was a student here and he would only buy me Texas Tech stuff every year for Christmas," she said with a laugh. "After I started cheering, it was just kind of a plus that they had a really good cheer program, and it just made me want to come here even more."
Sherburn, a junior psychology major from Wills Point, said coming to Texas Tech gave her the opportunity to reconnect with people she had competed with or against at Navarro.
"I really wanted to come to Texas Tech because pretty much everyone on the team either went to Navarro or Trinity Valley," she said. "I had family here already. I wanted to be here with them and perform with them."
It might seem odd to some that Sherburn would consider former rivals as "family," but Bills said for many of the students who transfer from Navarro or Trinity Valley, the transition to teammates is not hard. Many times, the students have been recruited by both of the junior colleges before deciding where to attend.
"They often know a lot about each program because they've either visited or heard about it," Bills said. "They first spend two to three years as rivals. Then they come here, and it is such a good melting pot. They are the best of both of those programs, and now they are on one team, together, being the best at NCA. The incoming freshmen and other transfer students see the connection they have with each other, and it's something I'm very proud of that has benefited our program greatly. I want to continue those relationships with both of these institutions or colleges, to make sure that we continue our success here."
Bayles said he often gets the same kinds of questions and comments about the rivalry.
"People always say, 'Can you imagine if there was a team that had people from both programs on it?' and, you know, that's us. We've got people from both programs," Bayles said. "When we get here, we kind of put that aside. It's not that we want to forget about where we came from, but we're here in the present. We're here now, we are Texas Tech. Let's work together and be even more amazing than we ever could."
More than just pom poms and spirit
Something many viewers of "Cheer" learned through the docuseries is just how much work cheerleaders put in daily, both athletically and academically.
"With things like football and baseball, and almost all the other sports shown on TV, people know what they do," Dumas said. "But cheer has never really been recognized, until now."
Unlike many sports, cheerleading season lasts year-round, with the athletes working almost nonstop, cheering for their fellow student-athletes on fields and courts across campus.
"We don't technically have an offseason," Bills said. "There's some downtime around the holidays and during the summer, but we're always in some 'season.' There is football, which goes into volleyball, then into basketball and that goes into nationals. Cheer year goes from May to May, regardless of what university or college you're at."
While it's common to hear comments like "It's just cheerleading" among those unfamiliar with the athleticism of the sport, Bayles said the docuseries was able to show the passion and dedication that goes into competing at the collegiate level.
"It is 'just cheerleading,'" he said. "But sometimes we have to kind of remind ourselves that everybody has their passion in life, whether that's a specific sport, hobby or their profession where they want to excel. They know what it takes, and if they care about it enough, they'll do the work to get there. Somebody probably told Patrick Mahomes something like, 'You have to go and put in all these hours if you want to make it to the Super Bowl.' If we want to go and be amazing and have the chance at winning these titles, we have to do these things. It's our passion. It's what we love."
The routines require hours upon hours of physical exertion to learn and perfect, along with strength and conditioning training outside of practice. Bills said after watching "Cheer," people ask if cheerleaders actually work as hard as the docuseries portrays.
"They'll ask, 'Do you really do all that with pyramids?' Yes, we do," he said. "This show really opened the public's eyes to what some of our practices are like. You throw people in the air, spin them, catch them and it's just a lot of piecing together all the hard work that goes into it."
Sherburn said she loved that the docuseries showed this side of cheer.
"I've had so many people come up to me who play sports like football or basketball and say, 'I can't believe y'all can do all that stuff,'" she said. "There have been a lot of people who messaged me saying, 'I had no idea how much hard work and dedication you put into being a cheerleader and everything for Navarro. I really respect that.'"
That work does come with risks, and one mistake can alter an entire season, something both Bayles and Sherburn learned the hard way while at Navarro.
For Sherburn, that moment came near the end of the third episode of the docuseries. As the squad rehearsed a complex pyramid formation, Sherburn was lifted and then thrown into what should have been a basket toss. Instead of seeing her caught by her fellow squad members, viewers heard a sickening thud and then screams.
"Whenever I'm coming around, I usually look down in the spot where people are supposed to catch me," Sherburn said. "I didn't see anyone and I thought, 'This is not good.' I just closed my eyes and put my arm out, which you're not really supposed to do, but I was falling and was going to hit my face. It was my natural reaction. It was very painful. It still scares me to watch it on the show. I cringe every time."
The fall dislocated her elbow, putting Sherburn out for the rest of the season, including nationals. It also meant Dumas had to adjust to performing with a new person just weeks before competing in Daytona.
"Sherbs was my top girl," said Dumas, referring to their spots within the pyramid, which included Dumas lifting and supporting Sherburn above her and on her shoulders.
Bayles, on the other hand, made it all the way to the bandshell in Daytona before disaster struck. During the squad's routine on the mat, Bayles landed hard after a series of back handsprings, injuring his left ankle and bringing the routine to a halt.
"It was probably one of the craziest days in my life, just because it was so unexpected," he said. "In cheer, you have to be perfect. It was definitely overwhelming, being on such a big stage and having it happen was so surreal and kind of an out-of-body moment. You can see it on my face on the show. I look distraught because there was so much going through my head of, 'Oh my goodness, this really just happened to me.' But I wanted more than anything to make sure the team knew we were going to be okay and whether we won or lost, I was so proud to be a part of that team."
After the team determined his injury was too severe for him to continue the routine, another cheerleader jumped in to fill Bayles's place. As Bayles screamed encouragement from the sidelines – also known as "mat talk" among cheerleaders – the squad went on to finish its winning routine.
"It was definitely hard to overcome for sure, because you never want to injure yourself, especially on such a big stage during a big moment," Bayles said. "But it taught me a lot, and it's helped me grow as a person pushing through adversity and learning how to overcome the obstacles not only in what God is going to throw at us, but also what life is going to throw at us."
Putting the student in "student-athlete"
In addition to the physical exertion, another aspect the docuseries focused on are the academic responsibilities cheerleaders have.
"It's something that we stress a lot and are very mindful of," Bills said. "We want you to graduate from Texas Tech. It takes a lot of time management responsibilities to get your job done on that side, too."
Rhode said Texas Tech completes more appearances than most schools across the country – around 1,000 per year, including athletic, campus and community events – and those leading the Spirit Program are aware of the pressure their students are under to succeed in all aspects of their life as a Red Raider. She said she is proud of the way they handle it all.
"There's a lot on their plates," Rhode said. "Besides all the sports and the practices and the workouts, there's an expectation that we're going to go out and represent this university and entire area, really. We're very proud of the GPA our program has. It's over a three-point GPA, which I think is remarkable given what is expected of the students."
The transition to a school the size of Texas Tech can be major for any student, and Rhode said it is no different for those on the squads. Over the years, leaders of the Spirit Program, which also includes the award-winning Pom Squad, have worked to ease that adjustment with support and resources that include attractive scholarship packages.
"A lot of our students are coming from out of state, so we give out-of-state tuition breaks," Rhode said. "They can cheer for a Big 12 school, get an out-of-state tuition waiver and compete with one of the best programs in collegiate cheer. We've worked very hard to make our program the best it can be and do the most for our students that we can do, and provide a lot of things that they might not have the opportunity to have at another school."
Rhode and Bills said there is a common misconception about cheerleaders fitting into a neat box and leading what looks like a perfect life. But like the Netflix docuseries shows, this is rarely the case. Many times, cheer is what keeps a student in school and on track to graduate.
"At the beginning of the year, I went through and looked at the makeup of the students on our squads," Rhode said. "So many of them are first-generation students. So many of them come from broken homes, from single-parent homes, from out of state and out of the country. It can really make you tear up looking at some of these kids. The docuseries did such a great job showing that, because it's not just at Navarro, it's a very consistent and common theme in co-ed cheerleading.
"But cheerleading is keeping them in college. Cheerleading is helping them get a degree. And you just admire their work ethic so much and their desire to get a degree from Texas Tech, to be here and to represent this university."
This year, the squads include 17 members from outside of Texas, representing 10 different states and two other countries, Australia and Canada.
"I think that speaks a lot to what Texas Tech represents to them, what this family of people have been able to build here, all the support this university has given all of us and how they have been willing to support the students," Rhode said. "It makes it an attractive place to come to school and to cheer."
Ready to 'Wreck 'Em' in Daytona
With nationals quickly approaching, Bills said excitement is building along with the hope that Texas Tech can once again bring home a victory in Daytona in April. Last year, the Co-Ed Squad took the title in their division and was named the Grand National Champion for an overall top score among all competitors.
"I'm very excited," Bills said. "Our squad is very talented and has worked hard on getting the exact routine that we want with our choreographer and skill development all year."
Bills said the university's annual cheer showcase will be held on March 30. It will give fans a sneak peek at the routine and allow the team to see where any final tweaks are needed before heading to Dayton in April.
"As a coach, I want to make sure we are presenting the best thing for Texas Tech, for our division in order to win our national championship and to be the best team overall at NCA," Bills said. "Those are our three goals each time, to always make sure that you hit. So in developing the routine, it's the skills you include, and then it comes down to the students and their execution of that to make sure that you are the Grand National Champion."
For Bayles and Sherburn, the hope is that they can show just how far they have come since being sidelined last season.
"We want to prove to ourselves and our teammates that we can overcome what we went through," Bayles said. "We also want to share that same experience of winning a national championship, not only with our teammates, but also with our coaches. We want to represent the university very, very well. We're getting back on the floor together and we're going to be fine."
Sherburn agreed: "I just want to hit and have a good time."
Dumas said she also is looking forward to competing with Texas Tech at the All-Girl STUNT National Championship in May. She said working on an all-girl-squad has been different, but the sense of family prevails.
"It's been different mainly because there aren't any boys on the team, but I like it," she said. "We're all like sisters on the team."
Bills said all three students have been tremendous assets to the Spirit Program.
"They're the best of the best," Bills said. "From their talent and the trainings they've had, Austin and Sherbs have been able to fit right in and do a great job. It's the same with Brooke on the All-Girl Squad. She is taking the knowledge she gained at Navarro and translating it to be beneficial for the program here. All three are very genuine people who love and care about Texas Tech as well as the sport. I'm so glad to have them."
Rhode said she is in awe of the way the three students present themselves, regardless of the unexpected bit of celebrity the docuseries brought them.
"They're so humble," she said. "To know them, watch the docuseries and know the reaction people have had to them, you would still probably not know that they haven't been at Texas Tech for four years. They present themselves in such a way that you know they're proud to be here right now. This is where they belong. All three are just such great kids with great heads on their shoulders, and great plans for what they want to do here and after they are here."
All three students said it was a little weird not only to see their lives portrayed on TV, but also to know that so many other people have seen it, too. Still, above all, they say they're grateful for the experience.
"It's just brought a great light and positivity to the sport," Sherburn said. "I'm very thankful for (producer) Greg Whiteley and the Netflix crew. They put together a beautiful piece that hopefully inspires a lot of people."
They also said they are thankful for what the docuseries has given them.
"For the rest of our lives, we can go back and look at one of the years we got to spend in college and the emotion behind everything, just the roller coaster that we went through," Bayles said. "Because, you know, we love it so much. We'll be able to actually go back and kind of re-live that and be like, 'Wow, I remember when that happened.'"