ALBUQUERQUE — Makayla Etzel is like any competitive athlete - she wants to win.
But the senior captain for the Taos cheer team said Friday was a victory for every cheerleader, regardless of the school or the results, competing at the State Spirit Competition in The Pit. It had been two years since the event crowned state champions due to the pandemic, which forced the cancellation of the 2020 event. Etzel said she felt like an eighth grader all over again.
She embraced her inner middle schooler as if it was her first time at state.
"After everything we've been through - after not even knowing if we were going to get this [chance to compete again] - it's a feeling like no other," Etzel said. "It makes you cherish [the sport] more."
The sentiment was echoed by many Northern New Mexico cheerleaders and coaches who raced through six weeks of practice to get to their goal - the State Spirit Competition. In some cases, the event represented teams' first and only time competing this school year, as coaches juggled practice times to develop skills and routines.
Athletes sometimes had to balance their time with schoolwork and practices for multiple sports. Pecos senior Alexandra Velasquez was among cheerleaders who were also on the school's state championship basketball team. To balance their responsibilities, Panthers head coach Jessica Flores held 5:30a.m. practices to allow those members a chance to compete in basketball.
Velasquez admitted it made for long days that started at 4a.m. and didn't end until 8p.m. and sometimes later.
"It's just a struggle, with new girls coming in, but they learned fast," Velasquez said.
Sometimes, the conflict between the two sports led to difficult decisions, like Flores opting not to send her team to Taos for a May 7 exhibition to get experience prior to the state competition. The Taos event interfered with the Class 2A girls basketball championship game, which the Lady Panthers won.
"For all of us to be effective and to do well, we have to share," Flores said.
She added, she was selective in what she focused on in practices, dedicating certain days to working on skill development and using Sundays to work on the two routines the Panthers performed.
"It's not enough, but they're doing the best that they can," Flores said. "I just feel blessed because they are actually hitting the routines and they are doing it in the amount of time we have."
West Las Vegas head coach Isabel Cavazos believed her team's season was done before it began. When West Las Vegas School District Superintendent Chris Gutierrez announced schools would remain in remote learning in January, it meant West Las Vegas could not compete in athletics this year in accordance with state Public Education Department guidelines. Cavazos said she was collecting uniforms in March when the state announced public schools would reopen for in-person learning starting April 5.
The reprieve emboldened her and her cheerleaders to work as hard as they could to make up for lost time. Cavazos said having all of her team returning from last year helped speed up the learning process of nailing down two routines.
"It was nice to get them back out on this mat and let them do the job they can do," Cavazos said.
While Taos, Pecos and West Las Vegas completed the two required routines to qualify for a podium finish, 14 out of the 57 schools at the event opted for one performance just to give their cheerleaders a chance to get on the mat. First-year Santa Fe High head coach Annemarie Villegas said the state competition represented the Demons' first competition of the season, having only performed in front of their parents Wednesday in an exhibition.
Villegas said it was important to give the girls the opportunity to compete because of the struggles some of them had during the pandemic. She said some of her girls suffered from anxiety as they struggled with different learning models and the distance remote learning forced upon them from friends and classmates. She said the mere act of practicing was crucial in helping them overcome those feelings and building their self-esteem.
"I felt it was my job to take these women from the middle of the pandemic to being a complete and utter success," Villegas said. "We all coach to win, but we build women at the same time. What we focused on was building up these women every single practice, every single time they did cheer with their cheer sisters. Today was for them to showcase all they have worked for this entire season."
It was a time for hugs, smiles and tears. Flores choked back tears as she talked about the lessons she learned during the pandemic and focusing more on letting the girls have their moments of joy than simply trying to earn a blue trophy.
"We're lucky just to be performing," Flores said. "We have to be grateful. I had to take a step back and really rejuvenate my program to do that. It's hard when you're competitive and all you want is to win, win, win."
Taos wins Class 4A title; West Las Vegas takes second place in 3A
While Etzel declared every cheerleader a victor, she and her Tigers ended up with a hard-earned blue trophy for the program's sixth title in the eight years. They celebrated in an unusual spot - at the Starbucks in Taos as the bus rolled into town.
Taos head coach Lisa Abeyta-Valerio said her team wanted to watch the results announced online after spending some time in Albuquerque team-bonding after the performance. The screams and yells at the announcement of their victory left a ringing in Abeyta-Valerio's ears - but it was worth it.
"I couldn't hear, it was so crazy on the bus," Abeyta-Valerio said with a laugh. "It was great."
The win made up the loss to Valencia in 2019 that halted the program's run of five straight state titles. Taos' cheer with music performance netted it an 89.75 score that included a deduction for a cheerleader losing her mask during the routine. The Tigers' cumulative score of 169.45 was 5.65 points better than runner-up Roswell Goddard.
Meanwhile, West Las Vegas had to settle for second-best in Class 3A, as Raton bested the Lady Dons, 148.10-141. In Class 1A/2A, Pecos took third place with a score of 130.35, trailing champion Clayton and runner-up Melrose.