ALBUQUERQUE — The Pit at University Arena in Albuquerque is not only the pinnacle for high school basketball in New Mexico, it is also the peak for the girls and boys who compete in the NMAA State Spirit Championships.

Mike Powers | News-Bulletin photos
Valencia High School Jagzz cheer team takes second place in 4A at State Spirit Championships at the Pit on Saturday.

Same excitement. Same nerves.

On Friday and Saturday, Valencia and Los Lunas participated in both the Dance and Cheer divisions, while Belen took to the floor in Cheer only.

Coming down the Pit ramp has become something of a legend in basketball, and the same holds true in Spirit.

“Once you’re in the tunnel the adrenaline just hits you,” said Alyssa Romero, of the Tigerettes, the LLHS dance team. “I actually enjoy it. It’s so much fun. Just knowing that everything you’ve worked for this entire year comes down to this moment.”

“It’s very scary; the ramp is scary, but once they call our name, we know it’s ‘go time,’” Lauren Chavez, of the VHS cheer team adds.

And “go” they did, taking second place in 4A Cheer.

Even a volunteer who has worked the event for 30 years after coaching cheer described the atmosphere as “heart attack city” because of the intensity.

You can see it in the performers’ faces. Over the weekend, there were tears before stepping on the floor, tears after it was over and, at least in one instance, tears during a routine.

“Yeah, it’s emotional. As a senior, you want the best for your team,” said Romero.

Perhaps the stress comes from the almost year-round preparation before this “one shining moment,” that comes down to two short routines.

“What is so hard about our sport is we rely on the opinions of our judges,” said LLHS cheer coach Aysha Armijo said of the judges, who are brought in from all over the country. “We only have two and a half, three minutes to do our best — these kids stayed united, resilient and strong,” despite ups and downs throughout the year.

Alyssa Romero and the LLHS Tigerettes perform in the 5A dance competition.

Official practice starts in August, but the preparation comes well before that.

“We do home camps. We do camps away,” said Joni Thompson-Armijo, the Tigerettes coach. “We build our skills and then I bring in choreographers to do our routines.”

Belen cheer coach Pauline Vallejos was hired late for her second stint running the team.

“We kind of put stuff together at the last minute,” Vallejos said. “Two of my assistants have college experience, so we kind of put it together the best we could. The girls just love it (the routine), and now we have the ‘wow’ factor.”

While most of the teams feature a roster with a dozen or more athletes, Valencia has just three dancers.

“We don’t have studio kids come to us. We have kids who have never danced before,” said coach Leonardo Archibeque.

To watch the trio succeed, “It’s so great to see,” but terrifying. “My legs shake from how nervous I get before the kids go out there.”

One of those “kids” is Erika Sena, who calls the atmosphere “really exciting — very friendly,” especially the way VHS gets support from “sister schools,” such as Rio Grande, Las Cruces and Cleveland. The support might start with a positive comment and lead to following each other on Instagram.

The Belen Eagles co-ed cheer team takes the floor at the Pit.

The Belen Eagles competed in co-ed cheer, with two boys on the team and the Cisneros sisters. The siblings have had a blast working with each other.

“It’s like the best thing in the world. It’s like you’re with your best friend wherever you go,” said Amaya Cisneros, a senior.

“I have my own personal critique,” Cierra Cisneros, a freshman, said of the advice Amaya gives. “She taught me how to do everything.”

It’s the goal of each team to perform like clockwork, and after running the championship since 1970, the NMAA seems to have the timing down, too. The dance competition took place Friday, with the cheer schedule Saturday.

The numbers are impressive with about 2,000 student-athletes, 106 teams and 212 routines every five minutes over the two days.

The Valencia Jaguars, who won the 2019 cheer title, were accompanied out of Valencia County by a police escort and a caravan of parents.

“Hopefully, our girls can handle the pressure,” said Jagzz coach Amanda Chavez as the team got off the bus. “They’ve shown so much resilience this year. I have no doubt they’re going to do well.”

And they did, finishing a close second to Taos.

It might be a contradiction, but the NMAA threatened to cancel the 2020 State Spirit Championships because of poor sportsmanship in the arena and on social media.

“Format changes and mandatory coach clinics have helped with this aspect of Spirit,” Dusty Young, NMAA associate director, told VCNB.

Young says the NMAA is placing a “heavy emphasis” on sportsmanship in all sports, and that there is still “room for improvement.”

Despite those concerns, VHS senior Sena seems to capture the feeling of many athletes.

“It’s just an empowering sport,” she said. “I love being a dancer. It has changed my life, honestly.”

In addition to VHS finishing second in 4A Cheer, the Jaguars were sixth in 4A Dance, BHS was seventh in 4A Co-Ed Cheer, LLHS came in seventh in 5A Co-Ed Cheer and ranked sixth among 23 teams in 5A Dance.

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Mike Powers spent more than 40 years as a television news and sports anchor, mostly in the Albuquerque market. He has won numerous awards including New Mexico Sportscaster of the Year. He covers a wide range of sports, including the Valencia County prep scene.