Eva Davis still gets chills on a regular basis at Kansas University men's basketball games.
But fans don't ever see the goose bumps on her arms or the look of awe on her face.
Instead, they see a 5-foot-tall, crimson and blue bird strutting across the court, playing with children and riling the capacity crowds.
Davis is Baby Jay, the beloved junior version of KU's mascot. She's one of three petite women who will play the role this year at university athletic events. Three male students will rouse laughter and Jayhawk spirit as Big Jays.
For Davis, a fifth-year nursing student from Topeka who will be sporting the Baby Jay persona for the fourth year, the best part of the often energy-sucking job is the children.
"I love the kids," she said. "I can have the most stressful day at school and put on that costume and my world just changes. They make our day."
The excitement that comes from lighting the fire under already sizzling crowds of KU fans is what drives most members of KU's spirit squad and pep bands to participate in activities that take a lot of time and energy. Oh, and it's also the men's basketball team.
"The Final Four was probably the best experience of my life," said cheerleading captain Marcus Bush, a junior from Hoffman Estates, Ill. "And then just the energy of Allen Fieldhouse, the tradition and the way that everyone cares so much about the tradition of it. Every game that we do, everybody still has chills. It's just amazing. It's an awesome feeling."
Worth the work
But it's not a feeling that comes without hours of practice balanced with the regular strains of being a full-time student.
Tryouts for spirit squad, which includes the cheerleaders, mascots and Crimson Girls dance team, occur each April. Spirit squad members practice three times a week during the school year and must meet academic requirements while enrolled in at least 12 hours of classes, said Cathy Jarzemkoski, spirit squad coordinator.
Although everyone chosen for spirit squad must be highly athletic to execute stunts and exhibit the endurance necessary to perform during athletic events, spirit squad members are not officially considered athletes, she said. Therefore, they don't receive athletic scholarship money, aren't provided with tutoring through the athletic department and usually practice late in the evening because other teams outrank them and get first dibs on practice facilities.
But the students say it's worth the challenge if they can do what they love. Bush said he came to KU because the cheerleading squad had won national competitions three times. He has found that keeping busy with cheerleading actually helped him stay focused in school. And the long hours combined with the long season Â the squad cheers from the time football starts in August until the basketball team finishes up, hopefully in March Â makes for a really tight-knit group of friends.
An exhilarating experience
The same kind of bonding takes place among the pep band members who blast out KU's fight songs and other stirring tunes at men's and women's basketball contests. That was especially true last winter during the NCAA basketball tournament, said recent graduate Sarah Fox.
"That's one of my favorite things about the tournament. You finally get to talk to the people who sit five rows behind you at the home games," said the Houston native who played piccolo in last year's band.
The men's basketball band has 40 to 45 players at home games, 30 when the band travels with the team. Auditions for those coveted positions take place in October, and preference is given to students who have been in the KU marching band, said Tom Stidham, director of the men's basketball pep band.
"I hate those auditions because we will audition probably over 100 kids to choose 30. That means there are 70 kids that I have to say, 'No, you can't play,'" he said. "It breaks my heart to do that."
Auditions for the women's basketball pep band are held at the same time in October.
Unlike bands at most other Big 12 schools, KU's pep band sits on the south end of Allen Fieldhouse, about "halfway up to the rafters" at home games, Stidham said.
The band doesn't rehearse regularly but holds rehearsals six to eight times a season, he said. The biggest time commitment really is the games. Band members spend about three hours in the fieldhouse on game nights, Stidham said.
"Most of them are pretty rabid basketball fans anyway," he said.
For Stidham, who has directed the band for eight years and has been with the KU band program for 28 years, being a part of the pep band experience never gets old.
"It's great. I know that I'm too old to really enjoy such a thing as much as I do," he said. "I just love it Â the excitement of the game and the excitement of the kids. It's just an exhilarating experience every time we do it. I don't get tired of it."