In the parking lot of a new sports bar, eatery and neighborhood watering hole rolled into one large space, the conquering heroes received kisses from girlfriends and bro hugs from buddies Saturday evening.
Inside Revel, those same heroes, still clad in their white Valley Vikings uniforms with blue-and-gold medallions swinging from their necks, were met with an uproarious greeting from the several hundred patrons.
With the blue first-place trophy held high and the New Mexico Activities Association championship banner draped like a shawl, the players waded into the tsunami of maroon and gold as their families finally got the opportunity to congratulate them for a second straight Class 4A boys state basketball championship.
About a half-hour earlier and a little over six miles to the south, the top-seeded Vikings turned away determined, third-seeded Highland, winning 67-61 in overtime as a virtually empty Pit bore witness to the coronavirus repercussions.
“It was different,” said Dean Chavez, whose son Derek Chavez finished with nine points. “But we’re kind of a close-knit family at Valley, and it was like having our family there. We didn’t miss a beat. We’re really tight.”
The difference, however, was driven home during the medal ceremony from the arena, when each of the players had a brief moment in the camera’s spotlight.
“They knew we couldn’t be there so they each waved to us,” Chavez said, his voice catching. “We all almost started crying.”
Valley junior Shelby Butler said it was a tough situation. “I’m a cheerleader, so we’re normally there cheering them on. But I just like seeing everybody come out and support our boys off the court. It’s pretty cool.”
The moment, however, was bittersweet. The cheerleaders’ own state spirit meet, originally scheduled for later this month, is in jeopardy. The NMAA announced an indefinite postponement on Friday.
“It’s hard not being able to look forward to our state competition after working so hard toward it,” Butler said. “And not being able to support our boys. It’s just hard on us. Hard not to be there to rush the court when they win and stuff like that. That’s what we did last year. It’s kind of sad not being able to this year.”
Junior Jaramillo, whose grandsons Mateo and Elias Hernandez were on the Vikings, said having a place where everybody could gather kind of made up for not being in the Pit.
“It was exciting but still not like being at the Pit,” he said. “We were there last year when they won. It’s just something you miss from the excitement of the game. I do understand the situation that is going on, but we have to do something. We did adjust. You can see the fans here.”
And the massive, 16-feet by 9-feet screens along the wall at times substituted for referees.
“We were yelling at the screen, ‘three seconds’ and stuff like that,” Jaramillo said. “Of course, they can’t hear you, but we were getting into it.”
Vikings post Jevin Baker, who finished with 14 points and a couple of key blocks, said it was tough playing without the fans. But the reception gave him “goose bumps” and brought a smile to his face.
“That’s how we got through most of our games. They never gave up on us,” he said.
Some fans, like those of 3A girls champion Navajo Prep and 1A boys champ Melrose, took the different option of waiting out the game outside the Pit, and they were waiting when players exited the building.
Meanwhile, Revel is a new site owned by 1980 Valley grad Nick Chavez, making it a natural Vikings hangout.
“When they shut the Pit down, I wanted a place for people to gather,” Chavez said, adding he made a social media suggestion and it took off from there.
Although plans are to open an event arena within its walls by June, this was an opening that was hard to beat.
“It was an electrifying event for me,” Nick Chavez said. “It’s probably going to be the most prideful moment I’m ever going to have in this building. Truthfully. To see them win the state championship in a place you own in a crowd that couldn’t be at the Pit. I’m sorry the parents couldn’t be there, but at least we’re all together.”