Acrobatics and tumbling at Morgan State University: Making history one flip at a time

By Ariyana Griffin
Special to the AFRO

Morgan State University’s acrobatics and tumbling team held its inaugural season this year, becoming the first NCAA Division I program at a Historically Black University or College. MSU became the third school in Maryland to offer the sport.

Morgan State University is celebrating the completion of the first season for the acrobatics and tumbling program on the historically Black college campus. Shown here from front to back, left to right: Ayona Young (front, left), Kayla Bryant, Taylor Green, Kalea Armstrong, Makaya Stubbs, Coach Regina Smith, Rayla Buckner, Indiriah Mitter, Miya Green and Coach Danielle Samuels. On back row: Olivia Phillip (left), Kelis Rhyne, Gamoni Gaskins, Janiyah Young, Tehya Purifoy, Leyna Vickers, Alicia Moore, Janae Harris, Jonyce Bland and Mariyah Wiggins.

The Bears finished with an overall record of 2-4 in their first season. Their roster consists of 26 female athletes, mostly first year students, who were recruited by Morgan’s head coach Regina Smith.

Smith said she looks for specific skill sets in recruiting talent and hasn’t opened tryouts due to the necessary physical, technical skillset and mental capacity needed to compete. 

“Because of how intense our sport is, the students are definitely hand-selected,” she said.

“Most of our competition is dedicated to the space of mental capacity and having that and mental health is a key factor.”

Makaya Stubbs is a freshman classified as a junior due to taking dual enrollment courses in. She is a health education major with a concentration in physical therapy from Douglasville, Ga. She said life on the team has been an adjustment.  

Stubbs grew up participating in recreational cheer and tumbling and competitive cheer during high school. A friend introduced her to Morgan’s program. 

She originally thought the sport would be easy due to her extensive background in cheer and tumbling. 

“I’ve done cheer, tumbling, stunts, flipping in the air. ‘This is gonna be a piece of cake,’” she said. “That was far from the truth. It was hard but it was very rewarding at the same time, learning all the new skills and seeing how similar it was to cheer but also gymnastics.”

Smith was previously a coach for acrobatics and tumbling, starting in a NCAA Division III program in Adrian, Michigan. She has also served as a head cheerleading coach, head dance coach and spirit coordinator at the collegiate level. She came to Morgan in 2022 specifically to coach the sport. 

“I came for the sheer fact of being able to provide opportunity for people of color, especially young women,” she said. “We don’t always have the same experience at other division one institutions, so being able to have that opportunity here at Morgan State is what attracted me to the position.”

Smith leads her team on the mat, but considers academics essential for each student athlete. The team has mandatory study hours and must maintain a 2.7 grade point average to compete and travel. 

“Our team GPA was like a 3.2 from the fall semester, we expect it to be higher from in the spring semester,” Smith said. “They are student-athletes.”

Morgan State’s all-Black team is working to diversify a majority-white the sport. 

“Usually when you look up acrobatics and tumbling, it’s predominantly White, all you see is a whole bunch of White females doing tumbling and stunting,” Stubbs said. “So when you look at Morgan it looks completely different because we are an all-Black team so people expect less of us because of the color of our skin. So I think coming to Morgan really showed people that we can do it, too. We can be just as good and maybe even better than other teams.”

Riley Davidson, a freshman psychology major from Clinton Township, Michigan expressed that it is important for HBCUs to broaden their sports programs. 

“I think it’s really good because I know a lot of these girls have very limited choices and it allows girls who look like me to do what they love,” she said.. “I feel like in predominantly White spaces, sometimes you don’t get appreciated the same way and you don’t get the same opportunities.”

Davidson said when she began her journey looking for colleges, she knew she wanted to be apart of an acrobatics team. 

“I really wanted to go to an HBCU because I didn’t grow up in that type of environment,” she said. “I grew up going to predominantly White schools and not really being with people who look like me, especially in my sport.”

The team visited the White House during Women’s History Month for an exclusive East Wing Tour, and were the first NCATA (National Collegiate Acrobatics & Tumbling Association)  team to ever receive the honor. 

“I’m blessed to be able to say that I was able to have this experience with these young talented women and make history. We also came on the last day of Women History Month and that just spoke volumes,” Smith said.  For [the White House] to repost our post … was just another level of elevation on what these young athletes bring to Morgan State.”

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