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La Salle-Peru graduate Alika Kowalczyk and the rest of the Valparasio cheerleaders wait for the team to leave the hotel prior to its NCAA Tournament game Thursday against Michigan State. Submitted photo
It takes skill, perseverance and a little bit of luck for a team to qualify for the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.
Former La Salle-Peru student Alika Kowalczyk needed a little bit of luck as well to take part in her first trip to March Madness.
The Valparaiso freshman is one of 17 members of the Crusaders cheerleading squad and had already been rooting on her schoolmates at home football, volleyball and regular season basketball games this year before Valpo earned a berth to the big dance.
The only problem — just 12 cheerleaders could accompany the Crusaders to their second-round tournament game against Michigan State.
Seniority dictated only one of the five freshmen on the team would take the final spot. So, for fairness, the five girls names were put in a hat — and Alika’s was selected.
It was a dream come true for Kowalczyk, who started cheering in the seventh grade and grew to love the sport competing with All-Star teams based in the Chicago area before going to the basketball-crazy Indiana school.
“They love basketball. There’s always a full gym for basketball,” Kowalczyk said.
Kowalczyk and the other Valpo cheerleaders had their work cut out for them Thursday with a decidedly pro-Michigan State crowd on hand to root on their home-state Spartans in Midwest Regional action at the Palace of Auburn Hills, Mich.
The game was broadcast to millions in front of a national audience on CBS.
“It’s a lot bigger (stage) and you have to be louder because you want the team to hear you. We were kind of closer to the team because of the floor (layout), but you had to sit down during the play,” Kowlaczyk said. “We could jump up when they’d score or whatever but it was definitely a different experience than being on your home court.”
The No. 14-seeded Crusaders came up a bit short — losing 65-54 to the third-seeded Spartans — but while she couldn’t help cheer her team on to victory, Kowalczyk said it was still a great experience to be part of March Madness.
“It was really interesting, but we had fun. We had a lot of fans out there to support us and the guys,” Kowalczyk said. “It was a really fun experience, especially going my freshman year. I never thought that I would go (as a freshman).”
The pre-dental biology major had mom and dad watching back home — they tried to get tickets but couldn’t at the last minute — and also had some of her former All-Stars cheer teammates congratulate her via text.
While her freshman cheer season is over, Kowalczyk said she will still have some unofficial cheering duties this spring rooting on 2009 NewsTribune Baseball Player of the Year Karch Kowalczyk — her third cousin — and the Crusader baseball team.
The former Cavalier standout — who helped L-P to a fourth-place state finish in 2009 — will be back for his redshirt senior campaign after missing last year with elbow surgery.
Chris Yucus is a NewsTribune Sports Writer. He can be reached at 220-6995 or at email@example.com Follow him on Twitter @NT_SportsChris.
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