MOUNT PLEASANT – It was Gibraltar Carlson’s turn to triumph in what has become one of the state’s most intense high school rivalries.
The Marauders seized control of Friday’s Division 2 Competitive Cheer Final from the start, then held off a valiant push from archival Allen Park to win the 12th cheer state championship in school history at McGuirk Arena in Mount Pleasant.
“We came in with the mindset of winning,” said Carlson senior Kaitlynn Demers. “We do these things in practice until they are perfect, so that we can bring them out here on the mat.”
Carlson and Allen Park were both more than eight points ahead of the field after two rounds, then distanced themselves even further by nailing their challenging Round 3 routines.
Carlson won the meet at 789.54, a little over a half-point better than Allen Park (788.86). Dearborn Divine Child (774.96) took third, followed by Bay City Western (767.94) and Middleville Thornapple Kellogg (762.28).
“Both teams are truly incredible,” said second-year Carlson coach Alyssa Tocco, who, ironically, is a 2016 graduate and former cheerleader at Allen Park.
“When you beat Allen Park, you’ve done something special. This is going to take a while to sink in, but right now I feel nothing but pride and love for my girls.”
Either Allen Park or Carlson have now won the past 16 D2 cheer titles. The last time a school other than those two won it was Holland Christian in 2007.
That competition has pushed both to greater heights of precision in the earlier rounds and more demanding routines in the critical Round 3.
Unlike earlier in the day, when unheralded Croswell-Lexington snuck in-between powers Richmond and Pontiac Notre Dame Prep for an improbable Division 3 title, Allen Park and Gibraltar Carlson quickly distanced themselves from the rest of the field – making it a two-team race coming down the stretch in the final round.
Allen Park went fifth in Round 3 and absolutely nailed it, putting even more pressure on Carlson, which followed AP onto the mat in the sixth position.
“We had a great day,” said 17th-year Allen Park coach Julie Goodwin, whose team was shooting for a fourth-straight title. “I couldn’t have asked for a better three rounds from the girls. We did everything we needed to do.”
Indeed, it was certainly not a case of Allen Park losing it, but rather of Carlson coming out and winning it.
Taking the mat immediately after the Jaguars’ powerhouse Round 3 performance, the Marauders did even better, gaining an extra point in the final round (320.60-319.60). Carlson’s biggest edge, however, was in the first round, when it bolted to a significant 1.7-point lead.
“We were ready and focused from the start,” said Tocco. “Never count out Round 1. We work on it constantly, and that made a difference today.”
The Marauders were led this winter by an outstanding senior class, which included Demers, a returning first-team all-stater, and second-team honorees Tiaira Michalik, Ellen Szucs and Emilee Bain. Senior Ciana Caliguire and junior Mya Oikarinen were returning honorable mention choices.
Allen Park, which finished second behind Carlson in the Downriver League, turned the tables and edged the Marauders at Regionals by two-hundredths of a point.
The Jaguars had a veteran team this year as well, with 11 seniors and 11 juniors on the 27-athlete roster. Among the team leaders were senior returning first-team all-staters Kristina Beste, Alyssa Rios and Madisyn Setser and senior second-team all-state choices Aleia Breckenridge and Emma Buffa.
Carlson has the upper hand in the rivalry historically, with 12 championships and seven runner-up finishes, but hadn’t won a championship since 2019. Allen Park, which has five state titles and five runners-up finishes, had seized control with three straight crowns.
Reclaiming the top spot felt extra sweet for the Carlson seniors, who didn’t want to end their prep careers without a Finals championship.
“This is a dream come true,” said Carlson senior Avery St. Andre. “Being able to win state and to be surrounded by the girls I love is incredible.”
PHOTOS (Top) Gibraltar Carlson elevates during a routine at Friday night’s Division 2 Final. (Middle) Allen Park competes on the way to a runner-up finish.
The Croswell-Lexington competitive cheer team had finished fourth, fifth and fourth, respectively over the last three Division 3 Finals as this season began in November with more high expectations – but also the annual challenge of believing those could be attained.
Competing in the same Blue Water Area Conference as Richmond, the Pioneers are more familiar than most with the program that entered the season coming off a fourth-straight Division 3 title. And as a regular at Finals weekend, Cros-Lex also is plenty aware of the power of Pontiac Notre Dame Prep, the only other team besides Richmond to win a Division 3 championship between 2012-22.
But during the Pioneers’ first competition this winter, coach Katie Tomlinson knew this could be the team to rise above that history and make some of its own.
Cros-Lex finished fifth of 18 at the Jan. 6 Richmond Invitational, but second in Division 3 to only the host Blue Devils, and with scores including a D3-best 309.30 in Round 3.
“For our first competition, (we had) some of our best scores we’ve ever received – and typically our first competition is really tough for us. So that was kind of a turning point,” Tomlinson said. “Just the confidence they had that first night, competing for the first time, it was just a shift.”
That shift provided early momentum as Cros-Lex made one of the most impressive championship moves in any winter sport this season.
The Pioneers are the MHSAA/Applebee’s “Team of the Month” for March after finishing their season as MHSAA Finals champions in the sport for the first time, overcoming a 1.24-point deficit to Richmond after Round 2 to win the Division 3 title at Central Michigan University’s McGuirk Arena.
Croswell-Lexington finished with three-round score of 776.72, seven-tenths of a point better than runner-up Notre Dame Prep and with nearly two points more than the Blue Devils. The Pioneers launched into the lead with a 314.50 in Round 3, the second-best score for that round in the competition.
“I think that it was such a shock for them in the moment and so exciting and rewarding,” Tomlinson recalled this week, “but it definitely was the work put in, just like every other team, and believing in themselves and just going out there and doing what we always do and what we’d worked hard for and what we’d put in that time and effort for – and just watching it pay off. It was kind of a mix of just really believing in ourselves – it’s been a challenge for a few years now building up that confidence to know that they are a team that’s worthy of a state championship and then proving that. They earned it.”
And it was truly a team effort. Cros-Lex had 28 athletes, and only one of the other 31 teams across four divisions at the Finals – Division 1 Grandville with 30 – had more on the roster. Of those 28, 22 competed in at least one round at CMU. Juniors Alexis Bales, Cora Katulski, Shelby Oliver and Makayla Rice and sophomore Carly Old competed in all three rounds, while seniors Noelle Golda, Santanna Horning and Emma Six and sophomores Larkin Krohn, Niah Krohn, Kaleigh Kelch and Addyson Sharpe competed in two rounds. Seniors Cassidy Seaman, Deborahann White, Maria Tabernero and Alleyna Martinez; junior Grace Hodges, sophomores Emma Yearkey, Madison Greenaway, Maggie Wallace and Addison Gardner; and freshman Chelsea Miller also took the mat.
Oliver, Katulski, Rice, Bales, Old and Kelch made the all-state first team. Wallace, Hodges and Sharpe made the second team, and Six, Horning and Golda earned honorable mentions.
Cros-Lex had finished second to Richmond in the BWAC and second to Notre Dame Prep at their District before finishing third to both at the Regional. The Pioneers had never finished higher than fourth at a Final.
“We are up against (Richmond) quite a bit and I’m super close with Kelli (Blue Devils coach Kelli Matthes) … and honestly, we enjoy going to the competitions that have those teams that have won on that stage,” said Tomlinson, who has been part of the Pioneers cheer program since seventh grade beginning as an athlete and including the last eight seasons as head coach. “It sure pushes us further to be better and keep improving instead of staying satisfactory.
“It does make it hard when you’re up against such powers for years where they take it every single year. It makes the girls second-guess themselves and their capabilities, so that was a big thing that we started back in June for sideline and tried since to implement every day – the confidence and the belief in ourselves that even though they’re great, we are too.”
Past Teams of the Month, 2022-23
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