KNOX, Pa. – Who wouldnʻt want to go to Hawaiʻi to go to school and have a chance to get paid to do it?
That is exactly what 2020 Keystone High School graduate Brandon Byers is getting to do.
Byers recently made the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa (the Mānoa campus is the campus most non-Hawaiians think of when they think of University of Hawaiʻi athletics) cheerleading squad, a competitive full-scholarship squad.
Byers won’t be on scholarship during his freshman season (he is taking out a loan for his first year), but his goal is to have the full scholarship by his sophomore year.
“Who wouldnʻt want to go to school in a palace people wish they could go and visit,” Byers said when asked why Hawaiʻi.
While the answer to that question is most likely no one, the story as to how Byers ended up making the team is one of chance and is rooted in the 21st century.
When Byers was on the competitive spirit/cheerleading squad at Keystone, Travis Mukina, an Erie native who former Keystone coach Kami Courson had met through connections at Slippery Rock University, choreographed many of the Panthers’ routines.
“He ended up getting a job at Chaminade (University) in Hawaiʻi teaching there,” Byers said. “I saw one of his Instagram stories and it was a picture of him at the beach paddle boarding. I told him I was going to apply to his university jokingly, and he was like, ‘do it.’”
What started as a joke soon turned into a reality, as Byers started researching schools in Hawaiʻi.
“I got into researching schools in Hawaiʻi to see if it was possible,” Byers said. “I found the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa and saw they offered scholarships for cheer and was like ʻno, freaking, way. I could get a full-ride scholarship to go Division I in one of the most beautiful places in the world.’”
Byers applied to the school and waited for the tryout schedule to be released.
That is where the COVID-19 pandemic may have actually helped the inspiring athlete.
According to the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa’s athletic website, tryouts for the cheerleading squad usually have to be done in person. But because of the pandemic, tryouts were virtual.
“Once they released the tryout date, I put in the video, and, sure enough, a week later I got an email back from the coach that he was interested. They went through three rounds of cuts, and I made it through each one and made the team. I got a Zoom call from the coach, and he held up a University of Hawaiʻi t-shirt and said congratulations I made the team. That was, honestly, one of the most exciting moments of my life. It was awesome. I couldn’t believe it. I am still in disbelief that all of this is happening.”
Watch one of the routines Byers sent in during his tryout
Byers is looking forward to becoming a member of the Rainbow team and believes it will be a great fit.
“I follow the team on Instagram,” Byers said. “All the posts I see, they seem like a really great group of people. I feel like I will fit in very well. They seem all nice, and the coach (Mike Keolaokalani Baker) is awesome. We have been communicating a lot to get everything figured out. He is awesome and helpful.”
At Hawaiʻi-Mānoa, Byers plans to major in Kinesiology and Rehabilitative Science.
“There are a few different routes I could take,” Byers said. “I could go into physical therapy or be a personal trainer or something like that. You learn a lot about the movements of the body and how it works with Kinesiology, and the rehabilitative part is about helping people get better.
“I have had my fair share of injuries and have had to go through a lot of physical therapy myself. I think it would be awesome to help athletes get back in the game after sustaining serious injuries. I know what it is like and can relate to those athletes.”
For Courson, his coach at Keystone, going to Hawaiʻi seemed like the natural fit for Byers.
“His dad was in the military stationed in Hawaiʻi,” Courson said. “Both his older sisters, Ashley and Emily, were born there, and I think his mom was six months pregnant with him when they moved back here. It was a long-time joke with him that he needed to go back. I am beyond thrilled he went and tried out and made the team.”
Byers is looking forward to getting to the island and learning as much as he can about Hawaiʻi and its culture.
“I am looking forward to the beauty of Hawaiʻi, obviously,” Byers said. “I am also looking forward to getting to meet a lot of new people and getting submerged into the culture there, learning as much as I can about their culture and everything they have to offer.”
Byers leaves soon for the Hawaiian Island of O’ahu at the start of August and knows there will be challenges being so far away from home and is thankful that modern technology can help close the gap between him and friends and family.
“I am actually in a relationship,” Byers said. “I have a girlfriend, and we have just been saying communication will the be No. 1 thing. The same holds true with my family through Facetime and Zoom and things like that. It won’t be as hard now as it was in the past, before all the technology, to communicate with each other. Knowing I can Zoom or Facetime them anytime I need to is comforting, knowing we might be 1,000 miles away and we still get that face-face interaction with technology is nice.”
GOAL OF MAKING THE OLYMPICS
One of Byers’ goals is to potentially get a chance to make Team USA, especially now that Competitive Cheerleading has been granted full Olympic status and may make its debut at the 2024 Paris Games with the 2028 Los Angeles Games coming up after that.
“That would be the ultimate goal for me,” Byers said. “I definitely do think it is possible with enough work and dedication. I have made it this far, I don’t see why I couldn’t strive to that level. Actually, Travis (Mukina) made Team USA and was part of Team USA before it became an Olympic sport. They are the top of the top, the best of the best. I am going to have him to help me, hopefully, get to that level.”
QUICK, BUT WINDING CLIMB TO DIVISION I
Byers’s climb to be a Division I cheerleader was a quick but winding one.
“I had a couple of friends who joined in junior high,” Byers said. “And my sister, Emily was in cheer. We actually cheered together my freshman year, which was pretty cool. Between my sister, my friends, and Kami (Courson), they convinced me to come to an open gym and try it out. I did, and I was pretty much hooked and never looked back.”
Byers, who had played “every” other sport there was before getting into cheerleading in elementary school and junior high, including soccer, football, baseball, and basketball, immediately fell in love with cheerleading quickly citing the environment of cheer as one of the drawing points.
“When I went to practice, I was always surrounded by a bunch of people who made me family,” Byers said. “Everyone was super supportive. The whole teammates’ aspect was unlike any other sport I had played. It let me showcase my skill and my strength more than any other sport. I would throw girls up in the air by myself and hold them over my head. I thought it was really cool to show people I could do those skills.”
According to Byers, the non-stop chance to continue to improve on skills and try new schools is also a big draw for him.
“You are always trying to get better and improve on your skills,” Byers said. “You can never stop improving. There are different skills you can learn. I am still striving for new and better skills. There is a lot that goes into my love of the sport, I guess.”
Byers said he doesn’t let the fact that many people still don’t view competitive cheerleading/spirit as a sport bother him.
“People say it is not a real sport, and it is laughed at,” Byers said. “That never really bothered me because I know how much hard work and dedication it takes to be a cheerleader. I just brush it off.”
After graduating from high school at the beginning of the COVID-19 Pandemic – Byers described that experience as “a pretty tough senior year” for him – he went to Slippery Rock University and was planning on being on the cheer squad for The Rock.
But, again, the Pandemic had other ideas.
“I did a semester at Slippery Rock,” Byers said. “I didn’t really like it because it was all online. It wasn’t what I was expecting college to be like. I tried doing a second semester but withdrew because I couldn’t keep doing online. It wasn’t for me. I was supposed to be cheering as well, but there was no cheer because of COVID. I wasn’t as motivated to go (to school) because there was no cheer.”
With no cheer at Slippery Rock, Byers decided to join a cheer gym out of Pittsburgh – really Cranberry Township, Butler County – to keep his skills sharp.
“Since Slippery Rock wasn’t having any cheer program because of COVID, I decided to join an all-star team through the Pittsburgh Rockstar Gym. I was on the Legends team. It was probably one of the best decisions I ever made. It helped keep my skills fresh in my mind, and I learned new skills and met a lot of amazing people on the team and was part of a new family.”
Byers’ team went to the World Championships in Orlando, Fla., and said it was an “amazing” experience.
“The coach from Slippery Rock, Josh Pugliese, was also one of the members of the team,” Byers said. “It was pretty cool that he was a teammate. I was only going to have him as my coach, and then I had him as a teammate.”
According to Byers, he wouldnʻt be where he is without the support of his parents, Craig Byers and Laura Byers.
“They have always been very supportive in everything I do,” Byers said.