New kid on the block for Spirit the Seawolf

Matthew Santiago stands in the corner of the UAA Dance Studio, wearing an oversized Seawolves jersey, on top of a bulky bright green and yellow body suit. With a sharp intake of breath, he lowers a giant green wolf-creature head onto his bulging shoulders and shuffles about awkwardly for a moment, glancing left and right as he tries to get a feel for the large floppy feet and the giant mask engulfing his head.

His first words as Seawolf mascot?

“Well damn, I can hardly see at all in this thing.”

He’d better get used to it. Santiago, a 19-year-old freshman, is the latest student to step into the costume of Spirit the Seawolf as UAA’s basketball mascot. Starting in November, he’ll be the guy dancing and motivating the crowd during every single home game at the Wells Fargo Sports Complex and the Sullivan Arena. This is his first time donning the suit, and already he feels the weight of responsibility before him.

“I’m nervous, but in a good way,” he said. “I have no idea what I’m getting myself into, but it’s going to be a good time.”

Santiago is not a traditional student: the last seven years of his life were spent on an Army base in Japan, his military father having moved the family there in 2003. He says it was a great experience, and he was able to get a lot of preliminary college classes done much more cheaply before finally coming to UAA to pursue a degree in Biology.

His sports of choice back in high school were wrestling and baseball; he has never had any previous involvement with mascots. But when a cheerleader friend told him Spirit the Seawolf was up for grabs, Santiago felt this was an opportunity he couldn’t pass up.

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“I’ve got a crazy streak in me sometimes,” he said. “And I thought, hey, let’s give this a shot and see where it goes.”

Santiago showed up on the final day of mascot tryouts and met with Tricia Farler, the head coach of UAA’s Cheerleading Squad. Farler led him through an interview process that evaluated Santiago’s personal commitment and his knowledge of what it takes to be the Seawolf mascot.

“We want to make sure the mascot is in good physical condition,” said Farler. “He has to be able to dance, run around, and high five the crowd for long periods of time, sometimes staying in character for up to a couple hours, in this really stuffy suit. He’s got to be in shape. It wouldn’t be good to have our mascot collapse halfway through a game.”

Commitment is the most important quality. The more devoted the mascot is to their role, the more of a hit they will be with the crowd.

“A lot of it is just dedication, and a willingness to be goofy, and a willingness to be in that costume and not be claustrophobic,” said Farler.

Mascots are expected to maintain the same eligibility requirements as all other student athletes: a 2.0 minimum GPA, and at least a six-credit course load. And although the job demands for a mascot are high, they aren’t paid for their commitment. It all comes down to the amount of passion the person has for being the mascot. Personal satisfaction is the great reward.

And so is the free athletic swag that comes along with it.

Santiago is looking forward to the sweatpants and hoodies, but he agrees with Farler: the best trait a mascot can have is the desire to throw themselves wholeheartedly into each and every game.

“You’ve got to be able to charge in there and pump the crowd up, even when things are looking rough. You’re main goal is to get that crowd going,” he said. “My selling point to [Farler] was, as a mascot, I’m going to go out there and act foolish, without fear of repercussion.”

Santiago’s favorite mascot and source of inspiration is Ontario’s Toronto Raptor, who devours cheerleaders as part of his halftime routine.

“Obviously with this costume I can’t really pull that off,” he said. “But it’s the mischievous part I like, the messing with the officials and acting a fool—that’s what I plan to do with Spirit. Let’s hope the refs don’t get upset too easily.”

Santiago would like to act out all sorts of rambunctious routines as the Seawolf mascot. He’s most looking forward to handling the t-shirt cannon at games; with his military background, he plans to treat it like firing off a mortar.

“What the heck is a Seawolf even? I have no idea,” Santiago said. “But I’m going to make him dance like crazy!”

He’s quickly learning his limitations as he tries out the costume for the first time, however. The feet are cumbersome, easily stumbled in. And as he found at the start, vision out of Spirit’s head is not the best. The suit itself, once danced in for any extended period of time, can become stifling hot.

Last year’s Seawolf mascot, Jesse Ekstrand, 19, has had plenty of experience with these costume setbacks. He participated in 27 basketball games as Spirit the Seawolf over the course of the season, including the Great Alaska Shootout. Going up and down stadium steps is one of the most difficult things, he said; a cheerleader usually had to escort him to prevent any accidents. And the heat buildup within the costume was a constant problem.

“We literally had ice packs in the chest area and ice packs along the neck line, and they tell us to drink at least a gallon of water before each game,” said Ekstrand, “but by the end you’re always just pouring sweat.”

Another downside?

“Not being able to talk as the mascot, you can’t hit on all the chicks at the games,” said Ekstrand. “Spirit getting a girl’s number? Forget it.”

As the newest Seawolf, Santiago has yet to fully experience these issues. For now, he’s concerning himself with simply becoming comfortable in the role as UAA’s mascot.

A group of kids come running up to Santiago as he ventures out into the hallway of the Wells Fargo Sports Complex. “Seawolf! Seawolf!” they cheer. He kneels and gives out high fives, posing with a couple of them as parents snap photos. The obvious joy on the children’s faces is all Santiago needs to know he’s doing a great thing.

“This is what I’m going for,” he says a few minutes later, after the kids have been ushered away. “Everyone loves the mascot.”

Santiago’s first appearance as Spirit will be at the women’s home basketball game on November 12.