On Ivy League campuses, the second weekend in March is important really only to the rare sports fanatics. They are otherwise filled with debate nerds and math geeks who couldn’t care less. I myself used to be one of these nerds. My first year at Princeton, I was on Mock Trial, in College Democrats, and didn’t give one whit about Ivy League sports. But the second weekend in March, I shocked my entire family by attending all four Princeton Basketball games in the Ivy League Tournament as either a cheerleader or spectator.

Princeton was the Ivy League Champion in both the men’s and womens’ conferences, pulling off wins over Yale (10-4) and Harvard (9-5) respectively after a weekend of nail-biting games. To the basketball teams, this meant they had a shot at shocking the world on the national stage, the opportunity to test their merit against more notorious teams from the Big Ten or PAC-12 Conferences. To cheerleaders such as myself, this meant an NCAA-funded trip over spring break.

Of course, that’s not all it meant. Since becoming a cheerleader in 2021, I’ve cultivated an unexpected passion for Princeton athletics and basketball in particular. I’ve come to think it’s an artful sport. Many would even call me a bona fide fan. Cheering at games is rigorous entertainment and exercise in one, and Princeton’s success in the tournament meant that I would get to spend more time cheerleading in different locales, against better-known teams, and in stadiums packed fuller than Princeton’s has been in the past decade. The buzzer at both teams’ championship games had me jumping up and down, thrilled not only at the wins but at the confirmation that I would not be stuck on campus for spring break, but get the chance to travel doing something I love. We traveled much like I imagine politicians or winners of Disney Channel sweepstakes travel—suddenly, and with 24 hours notice of where we would be going and when. On Selection Sunday, we found out that the 15-seeded Princeton men would be playing 2-seeded Arizona in Sacramento. Our 10-seeded women, however, would be facing 7-seeded NC State in Salt Lake City.

This doesn’t pose much of a problem for the teams themselves. In fact, some might consider it a boon—both of our teams playing only an hour time-difference apart, in cities where plenty of Princeton alumni could travel to support them? Awesome! But for the spirit team, this meant that one of two things had to happen: Either our cheerleading team would have to split up, meaning that all of the stunts and routines we had planned for the tournament would be in jeopardy, or one of the basketball teams would have to brave March Madness sans cheerleaders. Only a dozen cheerleaders are selected to travel with the team each year, as that is the maximum amount the NCAA allows. Both of our teams winning meant that several cheerleaders who were not expecting to travel received texts asking if they were available—but many weren’t, and so we had to decide whether to split up or fail to fulfill our cheerleading duties for one of the teams.

It was pretty much assumed that at least some cheerleaders would accompany the men’s team. men’s sports have a significantly higher viewership and profit margin, meaning that appearance matters more. Around 9 p.m. on Sunday night, we found out that all 12 people on the travel team would definitely be going to Sacramento for the men’s game on Thursday evening, true to form. At 10 p.m., we were alerted that the flight to California would depart at 11:30 a.m. the next day, which meant that the bus to the airport would leave at 9:30. I had not yet done my laundry. But at 9 a.m. the next morning, Wawa coffee in hand, I, 11 other cheerleaders, and one first-year who valiantly volunteered to be the Tiger mascot met in front of Jadwin Gym for what became one of the most successful NCAA runs in Princeton history.

There were two buses waiting for us—one for the team and their coaches, and one for “spirit,” which included cheerleaders, the mascot, our coach, other Princeton staff, and would have included the band were they not traveling to Utah with the women’s team. Hopeful that we would somehow be able to cheer for both the men and the women, every cheerleader packed a week’s worth of clothes appropriate for March in Sacramento and Salt Lake. The plane is chartered by the NCAA, and seats the team (in the front), their staff (probably also in the front), the cheerleaders (behind them) and the band (closest to the back, farthest away from anyone their rowdiness might disturb). Extensions were acquired, midterms postponed, but not past the end of the weekend—as I wrote in follow-up emails to many professors, I frankly had not expected to be busy cheerleading after the Round of 32, if that.

That’s not to knock Princeton basketball. It’s purely statistical. Only 10 15-seeds had beaten their 2-seed opponents in the history of March Madness, and almost every news outlet picked Arizona to win. Joe Biden even picked Arizona to win the entire tournament. But over the days leading up to the game, during which I watched more basketball than I had ever watched in my two decades of life, 13-seed Furman’s upset over 4-seed Virginia planted hope in my heart that they could do it. We had conquered a cross-country flight, a robbery, and Yale (the reigning Ivy League Champion) after all—why couldn’t Princeton beat Arizona? But it’s not a cheerleader’s job to make predictions. Regardless of my opinion, I was going to cheer as if Princeton didn’t have a shot in the world at losing. And we would likely cheer just as loud as Arizona—many schools send a six-person dance team and a six-person cheer team rather than 12 cheerleaders, which means a slightly less coordinated cheering effort.

Such was the case at Thursday’s game. Around 3 p.m. PT, we were up by one point at halftime. I didn’t go on Twitter like I normally would have during the break, partly because I was busy dancing on the court and partly because I was too scared of seeing what people were saying about the game. As the clock ticked down in the second half, we started to face the reality that Princeton was actually going to do it—they were going to be the 11th 15-seed to beat a 2-seed, causing a huge upset and opening the door to a Cinderella story. We—the cheerleaders—smiled wide, as is our job, but in between possessions we looked at each other with wide eyes and opened our mouths just a little bit more—some in shock, some in happiness, some in fright that the win might still slip away. When the buzzer sounded, I think I increased my vertical by a foot. I hugged the girls next to me, screaming louder than I had during the game, and we prepared to dance the Princeton Fight Song and sing our alma mater. The team was just as overjoyed as we were, if not more. My phone buzzed with texts from relatives who had turned on the game to see me and kept it on to see Princeton win. When I opened Twitter after the game, it was filled with that one picture of a victorious Blake Peters and Arizona fans mourning their loss. We canceled our scheduled flight to Salt Lake City.

The joy of the upset carried us back to the hotel, where we waited in uniform for the basketball players to return. Cheerleaders are kind of like furniture once we’re off the court. We stand in two lines and send the players off, or welcome them back, shaking poms and spiriting (which is a deceptively scripted form of cheering where we shout specific encouraging phrases instead of a synchronized cheer). A lot of the players don’t look at us at all, probably because we’re at least a foot below their eyeline, but still. It’s nice to receive a nod now and again. But even nodless, we remained thrilled by the win until we returned to our rooms to stop being cheerleaders and start being people again.

On Friday, we gathered in the hotel lobby and watched the women’s team defeat NC State with a buzzer-beating 3-pointer. We mourned the opportunity to be there in person, but chose our words carefully so as not to imply that we didn’t want to be in Sacramento with the men. And it was true—we wanted to be in both places at once, able to cheer for as many Princeton wins as possible. That night, I rotated between Twitter, the New York Times, and ESPN, trying to build up my basketball vocabulary and figure out what exactly Princeton’s continued success meant. I gathered that we had played well, the other teams had had off days, and I learned which players did what and how. (It didn’t help that my court crush, which I had developed after watching every home game, was a key player. There’s something about playing a beautiful game of basketball that just gets to me.) But none of the analysis assured me that Princeton would make it past the Round of 32, even if the part of my heart that was a cheerleader believed it.

But on Saturday—the unbelievable. Princeton beat 7-seed Mizzou by several points, proving that their previous win was no fluke. A second headline about David and Goliath graced the pages of the Daily Princetonian, and I posted about fifteen Instagram Stories about Princeton’s historic win. We hadn’t made it to the Sweet 16 since the 1960s. Princeton was well and truly a Cinderella, about to go to the big dance against 6-seed Creighton. The band made posters. We were trending on Twitter. People made TikToks about the lack of excitement on Princeton’s campus, since we’re all a bunch of nerds (and also, we were on spring break). I saw memes about future bankers who can also play basketball, and my mom sent me a Time article that I still haven’t read. It was much more glamorous for the players than for us. While they rejoiced that they had gotten verified on Instagram, we were victims of an administrative error that stranded several cheerleaders on a tarmac while the rest of the group sat on the plane.

In the days between leaving California and entering Kentucky, there were t-shirts made, a send-off party planned, practice scheduled. Exhaustion set in, and we agreed that we needed to spend the few days we had on campus in the company of other people. But on Wednesday, we were back on a plane, this one with significantly more staff. A historic run means a historic amount of people—photographers, social media coordinators, athletics administrators, and anyone who had the means to get a seat. It was impossible not to feel all of the eyes on Princeton. While the team practiced, we made the rounds at parties for alumni, giving those eyes something to look at. A lesser-known duty of the cheerleader is all of the schmoozing, which I’ve learned is just as important in getting fans excited as the cheering itself.

And on Saturday, it paid off. The KFC Yum! Center was packed tight. There were leftover colors from the previous game, Creighton blue, and plenty of orange and black dotted over the stands in some sports-fan approximation of pointillism. My sister told me to look for my 10th grade English teacher in the stands, so I did, but it was too crowded to possibly see. We cheered, and we stunted, and we waved to the crowd, and we watched as the crowd slowly realized that the clock was striking midnight and Princeton would probably not live to fight another day. One of the more difficult parts of cheerleading is being on, even when your team is losing. There’s this sort of dread you have to squash down to keep smiling. The people in the stands usually do not reciprocate this squashing down, making it even harder to pretend that we earnestly believed the team would win. But I actually hoped they would. Even as the clock ran down to less than a minute, I maintained hope that our team would close the point gap, that Creighton would foul just enough times for us to tie it up, that we would be in Louisville until Sunday. But the buzzer sounded, 86-75, and the team walked off the court, no longer buoyed by the thrill of a win. Nonetheless, the dozen of us kept smiling for the cameras and cheered as if we were not going home that night.

As we always do, we danced the fight song and sang the alma mater. People who passed us exiting the arena commented that we were the happiest losing team they had ever seen. “That’s our job,” I responded. And I was happy. For real. Even though the team had lost, they had proven that sports at Princeton were actually worth watching. But I already knew that—after cheering at every game, my enthusiasm had turned from a performance into a genuine feeling. The euphoria of Princeton’s success lingered even as it ended, and the team returned to a campus full of newly minted basketball fans. Our cheerleading journey was over. It now fell to the students, a team’s most casual cheerleaders, to welcome the players home.