Shannon Hull made it to the Final Four and won't forget it.
As one of Kansas University's dozen Crimson Girls, a spirit squad that performs dance routines for KU basketball fans, Hull was in the Indianapolis Hoosierdome last spring when the Jayhawks made their bid for a national basketball championship.
"That was incredible," Hull said. "That place was huge. I can't even explain how huge that place was."
Huge or not, the Jayhawk presence was known. The Crimson Girls and KU's 16-member cheerleader and yell leader squad had a Hoosierdome section of screaming KU fans rocking the house.
But it took some doing to get there.
Hull, a senior from Olathe, and seven other Crimson Girls hadn't been able to cheer during the Jayhawks' first four games of the NCAA tournament. The four members who had been with the squad the most years got that honor, so the others jumped into a van after KU defeated Arkansas in the regional finals to take their place at center court in the Hoosierdome.
IN THEIR eagerness to get there, the Crimson Girls missed a turn and a pre-game pep rally at the zoo. Not to worry. KU was on a roll and informal rallies outside the Hoosierdome soon followed.
Inside, however, the cheers weren't quite enough. KU's bid for a national title fell short when the Jayhawks lost to Duke in the final.
But the loss can't dull the luster of Hull's memories of a special season.
That season was especially important to Hull because she made the Crimson Girls squad only once in four tries. Last year's tryouts were her third, and she and two other squad members from last year won't be back this year. This fall, Hull, who is Miss Lawrence, will concentrate on October's Miss Kansas USA pageant.
Besides last season's march to the Final Four, one other episode stands out as a larger-than-life image in Hull's mind: A halftime performance the night the Persian Gulf War began.
NEWS OF the first allied forces air raid on Iraq came shortly before the start of the Jan. 17 KU-Miami game. The Crimson Girls' halftime show, a medley of patriotic tunes, had been put together for a national competition earlier in the month. The squad had practiced the number for months, but it was particularly fresh that night.
The performance and the crowd's reaction to it was unlike no other, she said. "When we walked off we were all crying because the crowd was all standing and cheering. The students all got up and started chanting `USA!', `USA!'"
KU went on to win 73-60, and that game reinforced in Hull's mind the positive role of the Crimson Girls, cheerleaders and yell leaders.
"It takes a lot of work and we want to be respected for that," she said.
AS SHE returns to the stands this year, Hull will miss cheering in front of a crowd, but not as much as practicing, performing and socializing with her teammates.
"It was the nicest group of girls I've ever met," she said. "It was a great way to be involved with the university."
The Crimson Girls team specializes in athletic dance routines. The yell leaders and cheerleaders direct football and basketball crowds in specific time-honored cheers.
As co-captain of the cheerleading and yell-leading squad, Janie Kobett is hoping for bigger and better things for the group this year. And she wouldn't mind another Final Four trip with the basketball team.
The senior enjoyed last year's journey to Indianapolis as much as anybody in the crowd that she led, although other schools' fans didn't impress her.
"I COULD hear Kansas way above Duke, and I liked that," Kobett said.
The performance of the cheerleaders in their national title competition last January didn't match the success of the basketball team, however. Kobett anticipates a strong showing this year at least in the top three.
"We had a great routine," she said of last year. "We just kind of choked. We'd like to go back to what we did two years ago."
Two years ago the 'Hawk cheering squad won it all. They just might do it again, Kobett thinks.
"We're more prepared than we've ever been before," she said.
Off-season informal workouts kept individual team members in shape, and three three-hour workouts a week will prepare them for their January national competition. Workouts include running, stretching, tumbling, stunting and about 100 pushups and situps.
That's a far cry from what co-captain Cameron King knew of cheerleading when he was a high-school wrestler and soccer player.
"IN HIGH SCHOOL, I used to see girls bouncing around and yelling," he said. He found out there was more to it.
He got turned on to cheering during his second semester here when looking for something to do to feel more a part of KU.
He discovered cheering is as much a sport as any other, and has thrived on the hard work, despite noticing that the women on the team receive most of the attention.
"We're just out there enjoying ourselves," he said.
Michael Waters calls himself the team's dinosaur. He is the only yell leader with a glistening gold championship ring from two years ago.
He hopes the ring will rub off on the others and that perennial powerhouse Oklahoma State will fall by the wayside in this year's competition.
He also hopes the squad continues to help the football and basketball teams. "If you've got 16 people going wild, yelling at you, that's going to help."
HIS PARTNER this year, Kendra Shaffer, a junior, missed out on the run to Indianapolis because she was a Kansas City Chiefs cheerleader last year.
She expects a second chance at the Final Four this season.
"I'm sure I'll be able to go this year," she said.
The hard work involved in cheering is the same at the professional and collegiate levels, Shaffer said.
"I think it should be called a sport. I don't think it should be called just an activity."
And the drama and instant nostalgia of cheering for one's own school makes it the best kind of cheering of all.
"It's your school and you're out there. It's just such a thrill. Especially basketball," Shaffer said. "When I'm in the stands, I always want to jump and scream, and when I'm down there it's my job. It makes me feel a part of the school."