Bright orange pom poms and plaid blazers stood out amidst the March Madness crowds as the traditional fight song, ‘The Princeton Cannon,’ blared into the night.
On the evening of March 24, Princeton alumni fans and spectators gathered in the sold-out KFC Yum! Center in Louisville, Ky. to see men’s basketball play in the third round of the NCAA Tournament.
“There were thousands of people in orange shirts at [the March Madness games]. Our job is to make sure that everybody hears those people and that those people are cohesively cheering for our team,” said Claudia Ralph, head coach of the Princeton University Cheerleading team.
After a season of bringing stunts and spirit to games, the cheer team had accompanied the No. 15-seed men’s basketball team to Sacramento, Ca. the week before to the first and second round of March Madness. Meanwhile, the Princeton University Band (PUB) traveled with the No. 10-seed women’s basketball team to Salt Lake City, Utah. Together, according to Ralph, these student groups made up “the team around the team.”
Last year, both the cheer team and band traveled with the women’s basketball team to the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament in Bloomington, Ind. The men’s team did not make it to the NCAA tournament in 2022. But the presence and success of both of Princeton’s basketball teams in this year’s March Madness came as a surprise to many, including Ralph.
“If anybody tells you that they thought [our men’s team] were going to be in the Sweet 16, they’re lying to you,” she said. She added that because the Ivy League is generally a one-bid conference for both the men’s and women’s tournaments, Athletics was “only prepar[ed] to field one team.”
Plans changed, however, when the men’s team won the Ivy Madness tournament on Selection Sunday, less than 24 hours after the women had captured a tournament title of their own. The tournament title meant both teams would be granted automatic bids to March Madness.
Later that day, the teams found out they’d be headed to two different cities on the opposite side of the country for first-round play; in just a few hours, the men would travel to Sacramento, Calif., while the women would be headed to Salt Lake City, Ut. Ralph said that the Athletics Department made the decision to send the cheerleaders with the men’s team to Sacramento and the band to Salt Lake City with the women’s squad at the beginning of that week.
Loud as can be: “Tiger, tiger, tiger!”
The cheer team only had a 10-hour turnaround between being officially notified and setting off on their journey to Sacramento with the men’s team and their athletic support.
“I had to get everybody up. They had cheered at four basketball games [that weekend]... So uniforms were dirty, everybody was exhausted, [and] they wanted to go to bed,” said Ralph.
Instead of resting, the cheerleading team stayed up and packed for their trip to Sacramento.
Away games — especially at the NCAA tournament — come with their own sets of challenges. Ralph explained that compared to the “intimate venue” of Princeton’s Jadwin Gymnasium, the larger arenas where the team played combined with national media attention that became focused on Princeton’s “Cinderella story,” placed the cheerleaders in a different situation.
The Princeton student programs — cheer and band alike — are also smaller compared to those at many of the larger state universities Princeton competed against in the tournament, such as that of the University of Arizona, the Princeton men’s basketball first-round opponent. Ralph explained this meant fewer substitutes and alternates for the two groups, which was part of the reason band and cheer split up in the first two rounds.
Accordingly, the cheer team “had to do a lot of adapting this tournament,” said Tavarria Zeigler ’23, a senior captain. “Keeping that energy up has definitely been one of the main ways in which I’ve had to show up as captain.”
“It can be overwhelming,” added Jalynn Thompson ’24, another of the three captains of Princeton Cheerleading. “There’s a lot of responsibility with being such a frontward facing part of athletics.”
“As a leader, I [want us to] feel confident going out there and doing all of our stunts, being engaged, and putting on our best performance. I feel like we do make a difference, especially in our crowd, when we're helping to get defense chants going or keeping up the energy.”
The captains had the added task of making sure newer additions to the team, like first-year cheer member Stella Szostak ’26, felt comfortable and supported throughout the process.
Szostak said that if she would have heard she would be cheering for Princeton in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament a year ago, it would have “[blown] her mind.” Nonetheless, she highlighted that being a part of this journey has “built up a lot of pride [in her] for Princeton… to be involved in such an incredible, historic moment for the school.”
In addition to the larger arena, the two rounds played in Sacramento were also unique because they incorporated performances by the West Campus High School band, local to Sacramento.
In place of PUB, which was busy playing over in Salt Lake City, the West Campus High School band played at the first two rounds in Sacramento, donning orange t-shirts to make their allegiance clear. The high school “rental” band, as Ralph called them, even learned ‘The Princeton Cannon,’ the University’s fight song, for the games.
“That’s a great way to start off, especially when you’re away from home… to start off with something that is a reminder of Princeton pride,” said Ralph.
Still, the cheerleading team looked forward to rejoining Princeton’s own band, who they have been partnering with at virtually all of the same sporting events since August.
“Having our Princeton band, and their plaid, definitely makes a huge difference,” said Zeigler.
Bringing the music
For members of PUB, their March Madness experience was similarly significant: “Just knowing you’re a part of the experience for the team and the fans is wild,” said Kate Voltz ’26, a ‘Drillmaster,’ or section leader in the band.
“You’re on a plane with [women’s basketball junior guard] Kaitlyn Chen and you’re like: ‘that’s just another student, but also this amazing athlete,’” Voltz added.
Told to go with the women’s team, the band flew to Salt Lake City, Utah, for the first two rounds of the NCAA women’s tournament over spring break. Women’s basketball ultimately fell in the second round to the University of Utah 63–56, despite putting up a brave fight for the second year in March Madness in a row.
The Band spiritedly played historic pieces of Princeton repertoire such as ‘The Princeton Cannon’ and ‘Old Nassau,’ as well as well-known mainstream tunes like ‘Mr. Brightside’ and ‘Summertime Sadness.’
“We really just showed up for our team in a way that we felt was really supportive,” said Natasha Hurwitch ’24, the band’s current president.
Showing up in uniform on a weekend or break to play at game after game can be a tall task, not to mention the countless hours of preparation throughout the week. In light of this hard work, some members of the Band felt they were finally given their due over the last month.
Hurwitch recalls seeing junior forward Ellie Mitchell look up at the band and celebrate them after the win against North Carolina State in Salt Lake City. “It just [gave us] that feeling of ‘we’re involved in their win,’ off the court, from a morale standpoint,” Hurwitch said
She added that the band missed the cheer team’s presence in Utah. While the cheer team in Sacramento could supplement their performance by hiring West Campus High School as an independent band, it is against NCAA rules to hire an outside “spirit squad” at games, so there could be no new group of cheerleader.
Nonetheless, the band highlighted Princeton cheer’s honorary presence. According to Ariane Adcroft ’26, the team made their best attempt to remember the Princeton cheers and perform them during breaks and timeouts.
“[Cheer] is a different vibe to spirit than the band is,” Voltz explained. “Obviously, we can be a little bit louder, but I think people also pay attention to their vibe more, and the energy they bring. It’s also really cool to have fellow students also contributing to spirit.”
“In Utah, the crowds were a little bit smaller… [but] that’s kind of fun for us as a band, because we like doing a lot of chants and heckles,” said Adcroft. “[With a] a small crowd, those were more audible.”
It can be difficult as a band to be audible amidst the shouting of thousands of people, especially at a road game. But despite competing against the cheers of an away crowd of over 8,500 in the womens’ heartbreaking loss against Utah, the Band’s resolve never wavered. They continued to perform exuberantly, doing their best to provide a backdrop for a Princeton comeback.
“We do our best with our silly little cheers and our silly little songs, but then to feel that [gratification] in a little bit of recognition from the team … was just amazing,” said Hurwitch.
Reunited at the Sweet 16
After the women’s team’s loss in Salt Lake City, the Band and cheer team were reunited for a final show of spirit in Louisville for the men’s team’s Sweet 16 matchup against Creighton.
“It’s always nice having both groups together,” said Adcroft. “[We are] more than the sum of [our] parts.”
Szostak agreed, mentioning that it was rewarding to “see the two groups work together… with the end goal of creating spirit and supporting the [men’s basketball] team.”
Ralph noted that for the Sweet 16, the men’s basketball team, cheerleaders, and band faced the added challenge of arriving days later to Louisville than their counterparts from other schools, so that they would miss as little class time as possible.
“To be an athlete [with] the emphasis on school first is something that we take very seriously” she explained.
Members of both the cheer team and band fondly described the fanfare and packed stadium that met them as they took to the sidelines in Louisville, despite the 86–75 loss.
Adcroft said, “just walking into that stadium in Louisville [and] seeing everybody there” would stand out in her memories. “I don’t think I’ve ever been to a space with that many yelling people cheering and everything,” they added.
“The most special part for me was all of the alumni that came out to March Madness," said Zeigler. “I saw people that I cheered with [during] my freshman [and] sophomore year, all coming back together to celebrate… it was an incredible culmination of the past four years.”
Shlok Patel ’25 and Sarah Burbank ’25 are two Princeton undergraduates who made the 11-hour drive from campus to the KFC Yum! Center to support the men’s team.
“I was part of marching band in high school… For that reason, I really enjoyed the [Princeton] band,” Patel told the ‘Prince’ in a phone interview. “Oftentime [Princeton] band members were shown on the jumbotron, and they [were] always smiling and dancing. Even when we were up or down points, [that was] helpful to keep the morale going.”
Burbank, a Louisville native, also commented on the energy in the gym.
“It was really cool to see a bunch of Princetonians there,” she said. “Even when we were losing, everybody was still so excited to be there.” Burbank credited the cheerleaders, who she said “did a great job every time they went on the floor.”
Looking ahead to future seasons, both cheer and band leadership are hoping to remember this experience as a sign of what the programs are capable of accomplishing together.
“We’ve really started to interact more and be engaging with the crowd, which is something that we’ve lacked, especially when I first came on,” said Ralph. “We’ve just started to build a good rapport with our fans, and they can see that we’re all making a difference in the game.”
Hurwitch added that the band, which is entirely student-run in all matters from logistics to music, has taken pride in their strong turnout and high-energy performance this season. She says they will continue to “self-advocate” for themselves in terms of playing time and a seat at the table, even when facing off against bands with professional directors.
“That is special in an organization that is incredibly optional,” said Hurwitch. “To have that continued reassurance of student love and student care for the band blows my mind every time I think about it.”
In any case, both the Band and cheer teams will continue to be around to help keep the Tigers’ claws sharp during nail-biters and blowouts alike in seasons to come.
“We have this mantra — adapt and overcome — as part of our team spirit, and that’s what we’re going to keep doing,” said Thompson.
Gia Musselwhite is an assistant Features editor at the ‘Prince.’
Yousif Mohamed is a copy editor and contributor to the Sports section at the ‘Prince.’
Please direct any corrections requests to corrections[at]dailyprincetonian.com.