When Morgan State senior Ayona Young, who was a member of the school’s cheer team for the last three years, heard from a friend that an acrobatics and tumbling program would be debuting at the university as a scholarship, NCAA Division I sport this winter, she wanted in.
Growing up in California, she participated in competitive cheer and club gymnastics from an early age. Yet she didn’t know what competitive acrobatics and tumbling fully entailed. She requested a meeting with head coach Regina Smith, who’s been tasked with building the program.
Morgan is the first HBCU to offer the program as a Division I scholarship varsity sport; the university is also adding a wrestling team and needed to create more opportunities for women athletes to remain in Title IX compliance.
“I reached out to Coach Regina last February to see if I could find out what acrobatics and tumbling was all about,” Young said. “She gave me an overview of what the sport encompassed, told me what she’s looking for in athletes, how she runs practices, her expectations of team members in terms of work ethic and commitment and the scholarship money that was available. I made the decision to switch over right then and there.”
Young was intrigued by the challenge of competing. Morgan State’s cheerleading squad participates in a national competition each year but primarily cheers for teams and events on campus. She was also excited to be part of making history.
Acrobatics and tumbling involves six events that combine skills used in gymnastics and competitive cheerleading.
Growing up in Albany, Georgia, and later in the suburbs of Chicago, Smith participated in competitive dance, gymnastics and diving from a very early age. She cheered on a Division I scholarship at Illinois State University, where she was also active in student government.
When a job in finance fell through after graduation, she felt an odd sense of relief. She had really wanted to work with young people, anyway.
In the ensuing years, from 2006 to 2014, she led her teams to 30 national championship titles in high school and at the small-college level at Otterbein University, Thiel College, Adrian College and Ottawa University as an acrobatics, tumbling and cheer coach. She also served as a volunteer associate head cheerleading coach at Ohio State in 2014.
“Back then, despite those accomplishments, cheer wasn’t deemed a sport, so nobody knew or really cared,” Smith said.
Despite an eight-year hiatus from coaching to work as an administrator and teacher at an Ohio private school, she quickly emerged as a candidate as Morgan State administrators looked for the school’s first acrobatics and tumbling coach. She was hired in late August of last year.
“I had built a successful Division III program from scratch without being able to offer scholarships,” Smith said. “Morgan offered me the job, and here I am. My previous experience building something from the ground up helps in terms of getting this program launched.”
She came into the job with one clear goal in mind.
“I was intentional about assembling an all-Black team with an all-Black coaching staff,” Smith said. “It’s never happened before. The student-athletes that I recruited had to have a GPA of 3.0 or higher and had to have the necessary skill set that is going to be competitive in Division I.”
Acrobatics and tumbling is one of only two American sports, along with football, to be founded at the college level. In 2020, it earned its official designation as an NCAA-sanctioned sport.
There are approximately 60 programs across the country from Division I through Division III, and that number is expected to grow over the next few years. Stevenson University, in Owings Mills, formed a team in 2021.
For this inaugural season, Smith recruited 20 incoming freshmen from across the region and country. The other members of the team transferred from the cheer squad, were former gymnasts who were already on campus or had played other sports; two former track and field athletes joined because they also had backgrounds in dance, acrobatics and gymnastics.
Three athletes are on full scholarships, 21 receive partial scholarships and five are walk-ons.
Niani Anderson, a freshman from Upper Marlboro, is one of those full scholarship recipients.
“I’ve been doing competitive cheer since I was 6 or 7 years old,” Anderson said. “I’ve never competed in acrobatics and tumbling as a sport, but tumbling was my strongest skill in cheer. It sounded like it would be a fun experience to compete in as a college athlete.”
Anderson started being recruited by the Morgan coaching staff after her cheer coach at C.H. Flowers High School posted online videos of her doing difficult flips and aerial tumbling routines outdoors on the school’s track.
She began getting an understanding of what her new sport would demand on Oct. 11, when Morgan held its first practice at 6 a.m.
A two-hour session was followed by a trip to the weight room, where team members worked out under the watchful eye of Tredell Dorsey, the strength and conditioning coach who serves in the same capacity with the school’s football and track and field programs.
“I did a lot of research on this particular sport, with it being a combination of cheerleading and gymnastics,” Dorsey said. “I had to formulate a plan of what they need from a movement standpoint to be successful on the floor. Being that they’re a new program, it’s a slightly different approach because we’re starting from scratch. Right now we’re doing a lot of work to strengthen their core and balance before getting into the meat and potatoes from a strength standpoint.”
In the short term, Smith wants to field a squad that, despite its inexperience, is competitive.
“The long-term goal is to be among the top teams in the country that is consistently competing for national championships,” she said.
Young, the team captain, is a psychology major who plans to pursue her master’s over the next two years while continuing to compete on the acrobatics and tumbling team. Ultimately, she wants a Ph.D.
Her best skill right now is tumbling, and she’s enjoying this new experience. She’s also enamored of the youthful exuberance and energy of her new teammates.
“Everybody’s starting from ground zero, I guess,” Young said. “But I love that the majority of our team is comprised of freshman. They all have such a positive outlook and attitude of wanting to be here to build a foundation. My teammates are hilarious, and I enjoy waking up early to be ready to go for a 6 a.m. practice.”
An average day for Anderson, the freshman from PG County, begins at 5 a.m. After a quick yogurt snack, she’s at Hill Field House for practice. She’s currently working on a 1 1/2 flip.
“It’s basically a 360 with an extra half turn,” she said.
On Wednesdays, she has no time for breakfast. She has to hurry back to her dorm and change into professional attire for her 10 a.m. business class. From there, it’s off to her noon history class.
Afterward, she’s in the cafeteria for a healthy lunch before heading back to her dorm for an afternoon nap. Her final class of the day is a 5 p.m. financial literacy class.
“I get to sleep at around 11 or midnight after studying, doing homework and hanging out with my friends in our rooms,” Anderson said. “I’m trying to get to bed earlier, but I’m having some issues with procrastination right now. I’m excited for when we get out there and start officially competing. I just want to improve every day as a student and in acrobatics and tumbling. By the time I’m a senior, I plan for us to be winning championships.”
The excitement is spread throughout the athletic department and support staff.
“When I first heard that we were adding this new sport, I said, ‘Man, I want to be a part of that!’” Dorsey said. “Every time I’m coaching them up, I’m reminding them that they are the very first, that they’re setting the standard and the tone of how this program is going to be viewed in the next couple of months and years.”
Smith understands the significance of building a legacy, but she won’t get too far ahead of herself just now.
“Right now, we’re just getting our girls prepared for this first season,” she said. “But sometimes I sit down and reflect about my ancestors, the opportunities and educations that they weren’t afforded, and ponder the real heaviness of what’s happening here. This is definitely history in the making. People are asking me, ‘Coach, what does it feel like to be making history?’ I just think it’s something we won’t know the significance of until 20 or so years from now.”