Jacinda Bishop, the long-time coach of the Rio Rancho High School cheerleaders is gone, but that doesn’t mean the goals for the team have changed.

Nor has a key destination for the team changed: The Rams cheerleaders are still planning to head east, to Orlando, Fla., next month (Feb. 9-10) for the annual National High School Cheerleading Championship at the Walt Disney World Resort.

According to the organization’s web page, “The National High School Cheerleading Championship (NHSCC) is the most prestigious cheerleading championship in the country. The NHSCC is … nationally televised on ESPN and ESPN2 to over 100 million homes and 32 countries nationwide each year.”

“I was her assistant last season; she left and I took her spot,” explained Bishop’s successor, Naomi Santistevan, 32, and a former cheerleader at her alma mater, Bernalillo High (Class of 1998). She’s been at RRHS since 2009, initially hired to lead the school’s freshman cheer squads.

“I coached C teams for two years, and then was promoted to varsity assistant,” Santistevan said.

A member of the Spartans’ state cheer SQUAD title as a senior, Santistevan said BHS had an excellent cheer program and RRHS is second to none, although she said she thinks Cleveland is the team to beat at this year’s state spirit competition, coming up in April at Santa Ana Star Center.

“I think my coaching skills have improved. I had excellent coaches at Bernalillo, and then Jacinda — she knew cheerleading in and out,” she said. “Rio Rancho is known statewide; it’s won two state titles.”

Santistevan missed out on competing nationally while she was a Spartan, “something (the Rams should be) extremely proud of.”

Although Cleveland High cheer coach Alex Kramer, also taking her Storm cheerleaders to Orlando, is a rival, Kramer helped her get the gig at RRHS.

“We’re not great friends but we are strong acquaintances,” Santistevan said. “Alex was actually the contact who I got in touch with, which led to Rio Rancho High School. (She said), ‘I’m at Cleveland,’ so she put me in touch with Jacinda.”

And that led to the assistant’s job, which led to the head coaching job.

Santistevan said she’s not there to be the next Bishop: “Since she was there so long, she had A fantastic program; and when she left, we lost 10 seniors.

“This is a diffERENT group of kids now; some are young, some are returners… they want to keep Rio Rancho on top.”

The Rams qualified for the national competition after a Dec. 8 National Cheerleading Association (NCA) competition at the Albuquerque Convention Center; they were in the large varsity division.

The RRHS delegation won’t need a map to Orlando, Santistevan said.

“They’ve been twice, and both times I’ve been with them. In 2011, they made it to finals, and wound up eighth in their division,” she recalled. “Last year, they were in a different category. They did well, but didn’t make it to finals.

“However, they competed in the very first World Division (competition) — and we took third place.”

Santistevan said she hopes to place her own stamp on the RRHS cheerleading squad.

“I feel we are the young, hungry coaches to keep Rio Rancho on top,” she said. “Our routines are more modern, more difficult (in the stunts),” she added. “We always try to keep up with that; we have an advantage being in a big city and the kids take tumbling classes, practice, do game-time cheer … the competitiveness of the program is huge.”

Having once been a cheerleader, Santistevan said she thought she was ahead of the game

“I had to humble myself — I thought I knew my stuff,” she said. “But cheer has come into its own; it really is a sport. It’s athletic — there are some injuries, but it shows how hard our girls work.

“I’m really pushing these kids to what they’re capable of, staying modern and on top of what cheerleading is about.”

Once she became the head coach, Santistevan faced what is arguably the toughest chore for any head coach: making cuts.

Approximately 60 hopefuls showed up at the end of April for tryouts (varsity, junior varsity and C team squads), she said. That’s the good news: continued interest in the program.

“I ended up taking 24 (for the varsity).” More than two-dozen went into the JV and C-team squads; Santistevan had to deliver the bad news — you didn’t make the team — to eight girls, she said.

“Being the first-time varsity coach, I feel like it was difficult,” she said of deciding who made the squads and who didn’t. “But as competitive as we are, Jacinda trained me well as to what to expect on a varsity-level team — the skill level, dedication and commitment.”

And the sore bodies.

“Parents are calling me; their girls are soaking in the bathtub,” she said after a recent nine-hour practice. But, she added, “We have a new routine to take to the nationals.”

That routine isn’t one of the cheers fans see at basketball games, or at football games and volleyball matches during the fall.

“Every year, we use new material,” she said. “We have three competitions this winter; after every routine, we go home and adjust. Going into nationals, this last routine we did — we felt when we get to nationals, it isn’t competitive.

“In order for us to be competitive, we decided we needed a new routine,” Santistevan explained. “We’ve got six weeks (in all) to practice — we practice four days a week, attend games for boys and girls (basketball). They really have to have it in their heart.

“We are very privileged to go to Orlando; I don’t think APS does that.”

As many as two-dozen RRHS girls are heading to Orlando for the upcoming competition. It’s good to have subs available, in light of sprained ankles and other recurring mishaps. “At state, only 20 are allowed on the floor,” Santistevan said.

She said there’d be a parents night on Monday, a few days before the competition begins in Orlando. Parents can see the routine and ask questions about their daughters’ trip.

Santistevan, a stay-at-home mom to three youngsters under the age of 8, can’t wait to get her 4-year-old daughter entering the sport.

“She loves the cheerleaders. It’s definitely something I look forward to putting her in.”

Former RrHS cheerleader Stephanie Tapia is Santistevan’s varsity assistant.

The varsity team is made up of seniors Aubree Colley, Chelsie Padilla, Ciara Griffith and Jennifer Lucero; juniors Alex Mijares, Allie West, Lauren Romero, Lindsey Livingston and Tayler Ferretti; sophomores Amber Olichwier, Brianna Plant, Brittany Davis, Davis Carlson, Faith Marquez, Jazmin Stack, Jocelyn Moxley, Katie Chaves, Kristin Brennan and Marissa Perez; and freshmen Sophia Sena, Kenzie Snoeburger and Samantha Marquez.