Cheers to the champs: Aspen High dance team wins first state championship

When Maddy Miller interviewed for the job, she tossed out her goal of winning a state championship. This may have been a bit of bravado for the former Denver Nuggets dancer who took over as head coach of the Aspen High School spirit and dance team this fall, but then again, maybe it wasn’t.

“What was funny was I didn’t realize what I was getting myself into. I had never seen any of them really dance and I remember being very overwhelmed in the beginning,” said Miller, who coaches the team alongside assistant Gioia Bartalo, a former Denver Broncos cheerleader. “They started getting more confident in themselves and I think after our last competition, getting fourth, we realized we had a chance. They worked really hard and in the last month it’s probably the hardest I’ve ever seen any of them work.”

What may have been a bold goal only a few months ago materialized into something very real as the season progressed. It all came together Saturday when the Skiers held off SkyView Academy to win the Class 3A poms title at the Denver Coliseum. It was Aspen’s first Colorado High School Activities Association state championship in spirit or dance.

“I honestly keep crying. I don’t cry often and I’m really tough around the girls. It’s really cool and the girls are on cloud nine right now and they should be,” Miller said Sunday afternoon. “They worked so hard and easily they deserved it. There is not a question in my mind about how well they performed. It was amazing.”

The actual state competition lasted about four minutes for the Skiers. The whole ordeal lasted all day, and some. They got to Denver around 11 p.m. Friday and were up again by 4:30 a.m. Saturday to get ready for their qualifying dance just after 8 a.m.

There were six teams competing in the 3A poms division, with the top two making it into finals later Saturday night. Miller thought it would come down to Aspen and University, but was hit with a surprise Saturday morning when SkyView was announced as the first team to qualify into finals.

“We all sat and held hands. Everyone is shaking and freaking out. And then they announce SkyView first. I’m not going to lie, I had a minor heart attack there because that’s not the team I thought was going to be in finals,” Miller said. “Obviously I’m just trying not to get my hopes up too much. Then, right after that, they said Aspen and everyone freaked out, everyone cried. Very normal.”

With a score of 86.26, Aspen qualified first with SkyView coming in second at 83.06. University would have been second with 84.5, but was hit with a 20-point deduction and finished fifth. Riverdale Ridge (third), Grand Valley (fourth) and Bayfield (sixth) also competed.

The 3A poms finalists were announced late Saturday morning, but the finals competition wasn’t until after 8 p.m. that night. The actual dance routine is only two minutes long, and part of what the Skiers had to do in that downtime is fine-tune their mistakes from qualifying.

“The biggest thing from prelims to finals is you got to show the judges you are listening to the critiques and fix the things they had comments about. So we went around and made sure every little detail is back the way it needs to be,” Miller said. “They danced their hearts out. It was the best time I’ve ever seen them do it. It was amazing.”

Then it was more waiting. The awards ceremony wasn’t until around 11 p.m. Saturday, an agonizingly long time for a team waiting to see if it had finally won a state championship. Having hardly slept over the prior 24 hours and operating purely on adrenaline, the Skiers again held hands and hoped for the best.

In their final practice before state, some of the dancers had admired the state championship banners in Aspen’s gymnasium and dared to dream of adding their own. It was a team hoping to earn some respect — or even to get noticed — for its talents.

Validation finally came late Saturday night: Aspen 92.5, SkyView 91.22.

“They announced the runner-up and it was SkyView and immediately I started crying. The girls are freaking out,” Miller said. “It was a very surreal moment. I think it’s still catching up to everyone that we did it and I don’t think they are going to forget that for a very long time. I’m so proud of them. They’ve worked so hard.”

Now, probably before that banner even gets hung in the AHS gymnasium, it’s back to work. Last month at a regional meet, the Skiers qualified for the National Dance Alliance national championship, held March 6 to 8 at Disney World in Orlando.

Not only does Miller plan to have all 14 dancers, which includes their alternates, competing for the poms title in Florida, but AHS also has to have a jazz routine, something they plan to work on over the coming months.

“They finally realized they are not only now the best 3A team in the state of Colorado, but they would have placed so high up with 5A teams and they realize that now,” Miller said. “Winning state, that is probably the biggest confidence booster you can ever have. I think it finally shows them officially they are good enough to do anything.”