Friends since grade school, now they're on an elite UI squad

Friends since grade school, now they're on an elite UI squad

There must be something in Rantoul that likes to make cheerleaders. Maybe it's in the water.

Illini cheerleaders number about three dozen out of the 40,000-plus University of Illinois student body. Yet three of them hail from a town of 12,937.

The three have known each other all their young lives. They grew up in Rantoul, went to St. Malachy Catholic School and then to The High School of St. Thomas More together.

Zoe Kaler and C.J. Young, who were in the same kindergarten class, are in their second year on the UI cheerleading squad, and C.J.'s brother Andrew joined them this season.

They've always been friends, but they haven't always been cheerleaders together.

Kaler was on the cheerleading squad in high school, but the boys concentrated on football and wrestling — until Kaler started them thinking about cheerleading at the college level.

The schoolmates are unable to give an answer about what aspect of "Rantoulness" contributed to their success in auditions. No one teacher or coach. No one inspiring event.

"No idea," C.J. Young said.

Recently reunited at The High School of St. Thomas More, the trio tried out some of the big cheerleading moves as a chilly autumn afternoon made its way to evening.

While Kaler took a stand above the brothers, the three were hesitant for a moment in the wind.

"I'll catch you if you fall," C.J. joked.

That's the kind of support only a friend can give you.

"We've never done this one together before," Kaler said, but the stunt was successful.

The brothers lift weights three times a week to keep in shape, in addition to their regular practices.

"It's like any other sport," Andrew said.

The three are part of a large football cheerleading contingent in the fall, but basketball is a different story.

"For basketball, we are split in half (Team Illini and Team Oskee) because there isn't enough room for all 35 of us," said Kaler, who added that memberships are not based on differences in skill level.

Cheerleading season lasts from August to the end of April but includes practices over the summer break as well as participation in a summer cheerleading camp, according to a Web page for would-be Illini cheerleaders.

Tryouts last two grueling days in April.

"It's pretty hard work to make the cheerleading team, but it's still fun," Kaler said.

Their coach, Stephanie Record, said making the final cut was an achievement.

"It's less difficult for guys. Last year, 13 tried out and 11 made it," she said. "It's harder to get guys to try it out because most of them did different sports in high school."

She called Kaler "inspiring" for helping to recruit for the squad.

Andrew Young is known to many on the squad as "A.J." because of his closeness to his brother, she said.

Record said C.J. Young is "a great addition and leader right off the bat." Cheerleaders should be leaders in the student body, she said.

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