Cheering for the champs

Melanie Sanches, a Prospect native and Woodland Regional High School graduate, cheered for the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots this season. –COURTESY OF THE NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS
Melanie Sanches, a Prospect native and Woodland Regional High School graduate, cheered for the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots this season. –COURTESY OF THE NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS

As the confetti rained down at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz., following the New England Patriots’ Super Bowl XLIX victory Feb. 1, Prospect native Melanie Sanches celebrated the win with a squad of friends.

Sanches didn’t celebrate in her living room watching the big game on TV. Rather, she rejoiced the dramatic victory on the field at University of Phoenix Stadium, and those friends were her fellow Patriots Cheerleaders.

“It was a celebration for us, too,” said the 25-year-old Sanches, adding the cheerleading squad lives and dies with the team through every game.

The thrilling ending to the game — Malcolm Butler’s interception at the 1-yard line with less than 30 seconds to play — only fueled the excitement.

“It was just exciting, everyone was so excited,” Sanches said.

Sanches spent the 2014-15 NFL season as a rookie on the Patriots’ 28-member cheerleading squad.

“I was a Patriots fan, and I would say I’m a bigger Patriots fan now,” she said.

While the season marked her first as an NFL cheerleader, Sanches is no stranger to dance and performing on a big stage.

Sanches has danced since she was young, including with the Connecticut Dance Theatre and the Arts in Prospect, and continued through high school as a member of the dance team at Woodland Regional High School in Beacon Falls.

Aside from dance, Sanches also competed in pageants growing up and was crowned Miss Teen Connecticut in 2006.

After graduating from Woodland in 2007, Sanches attended the University of Connecticut and earned a Bachelor of Science degree in biology in 2011.

Although dance took a backseat to her studies at UConn, it was here where Sanches’ interest in cheering for the Patriots was piqued. She said one of her friends at UConn was a cheerleader for the team. After talking with her about it, Sanches researched what it took to be a Patriots Cheerleader.

Sanches said she thought being a cheerleader would be a great opportunity to meet new friends, get back into dancing and be a part of a team again — something she hadn’t experienced since high school.

She wouldn’t be disappointed, but trying out would wait.

Sanches currently attends Tufts University School of Dental Medicine in Boston, where she lives, and will graduate in May with a Doctorate in Dental Medicine. She first planned to try out for the squad in 2013. However, her class’ White Coat Ceremony was the same day as tryouts. The ceremony — an annual tradition during which students at Tufts receive their white coats — was too important to miss, she said.

When tryouts came around again last spring, Sanches was there. She made it through several rounds of cuts, auditions and a boot camp to earn a place on the squad.

Finding out that she had made the squad was exciting, Sanches said, but also nerve-racking. She wasn’t sure how she would balance her time between clinics five days a week for school and practice. Practices were two nights a week from 7 to 10 p.m. and on Saturdays before the season, and then on early Sunday mornings during the season.

Despite being nervous at first, Sanches said she found solace in the structure her busy schedule provided. Her debut on the sidelines came when the Patriots opened their home slate versus the Oakland Raiders Sept. 21.

“It was just incredible,” said Sanches about walking out onto the field at Gillette Stadium for her first game. “It was more than I anticipated.”

Sanches cheered for the Patriots for eight home games and two playoff games before heading to Arizona for the Super Bowl.

The cheerleaders flew out the Thursday before the Super Bowl. The days leading up to the big game were full of appearances for the squad, including appearances on The Today Show, Fox & Friends and Good Morning America.

But, the trip wasn’t all about football.

Sanches was among of number of cheerleaders who took part in an event hosted by Science Cheerleader, an organization of current and former professional NFL and NBA cheerleaders pursuing science and engineering careers. The organization works to challenge stereotypes in a playful way.

Sanches and other cheerleaders spent a day with young cheerleaders in hopes of sparking an interest in them to pursue a career in the science and technology fields. She said the event also showed parents their daughters can have careers in such fields and be cheerleaders.

Sanches wasn’t chosen for the event by coincidence. Once she earns her Doctorate in Dental Medicine in the spring, Sanches will begin her career in dentistry and fulfill a lifelong dream.

“It’s a combination of science and art, which are two things I really enjoy,” said Sanches about being a dentist.

Following her dream will mean that her career as a New England Patriots Cheerleader will only last one year. Once she’s finished at Tufts, Sanches is moving to south Florida to begin working at a general dentist practice.

The idea that Sanches could try out to be a cheerleader for the Miami Dolphins — an AFC East rival of the Patriots — has come up in conversations with friends, she said. However, Sanches doesn’t see that in the cards.

“I don’t see that in my future,” Sanches said. “I have to keep my loyalties with the Patriots.”