Back on Top in Downriver Rivalry, Carlson Claims 1st Finals Title Since 2019

By Tom Kendra
Special for

March 3, 2023

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 competes on the way to a runner-up finish.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.”

Click for full results.

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.

Several Officials Give Time, Talents to Grant $21,000 in Scholarships at 22nd LMCCOA Meet

By Steve Vedder
Special for

February 14, 2024

Jane Plaisted thinks it's one of those rare high school sporting events where scores and winners are secondary.

Instead, the focus of the recent Lake Michigan Competitive Cheer Officials Association meet is what the event could do for 75 seniors who competed in the sprawling 45-team meet at Byron Center.

All proceeds from the event went to fund scholarships for seniors who opted to write essays and then competed in the annual 22-year-old, three-division meet. The competition, which was completely run by LMCCOA judges, raised $21,000 to up its fundraising total to over $200,000 since the meet originated in 2001.

"It was a glorious day," said Plaisted, an LMCCOA member who has participated in 15 of the competitions. "The girls are happy, we're happy to give our time and it's such a positive day. We love being a part of it."

The event drew teams from as far away as St. Johns, DeWitt, Kalamazoo and Howard City Tri County. The chance to earn scholarship money was open to all 190 seniors who competed, and 75 chose to write an essay about "talking to their younger self and determining how competitive cheer has helped the athlete," said Stacy Smith, the president of the Michigan Cheer Judges Association. Smith said much of the event's dual goal is to promote competitive cheer while helping senior athletes wherever there is a financial need.

Several officials contribute to making the meet an unforgettable experience. The meet started with just five teams and a few hundred dollars in scholarships in 2001, but has blossomed into one of the largest single-day high school sports fundraisers in the state. The meet, which has been held at Byron Center three times as well as schools such as Caledonia and East Kentwood, reached a peak of raising $25,000 a year ago.

What makes the day particularly special, Smith said, is that between 50 and 70 members of the LMCCOA annually show up to donate their time without knowing how their abilities will be put to use. In addition to judging the meet, members handle virtually every other aspect of the competition, from taking tickets, working the concession stand, filling water bottles, scoring, running a 50/50 raffle and whatever else organizers can find for them to do.

"Cheer athletes aren't always recognized a lot for their work, but it's a sport where (Michigan) colleges have gained notoriety at the national level and now offer scholarships," Smith said. "It's become a big deal in the state. Division I and II schools and NAIA schools all offer scholarships now. This can help."

Seniors who choose to participate write their essay prior to the meet, and then a committee of judges pore over the writings during the meet. Winners are announced following the competition. Twenty-one seniors were awarded scholarship money.

Smith said few parents probably grasp how much detail goes into running a long, grueling Saturday event.

"I'm not sure if people realize all the hands that have to make this happen," she said. "We've been doing it for 20 years, and for us it's like riding a bike. You never forget. It's just a wonderful day.

"I'm not surprised people want to be part of it and step up wherever they're needed."

Plaisted said judges sign up for jobs when they arrive at the meet. A judge can be officiating an event one minute and selling hot dogs moments later. The 'work wherever needed' attitude of judges, she said, is what makes the event a popular destination for participating schools.

"As officials, we emphasize young women participating," she said. "That old concept of the dumb blonde cheerleader doesn't exist anymore. This is an accomplished group of girls who we support. If you talk to any of (the judges), this meet is one of the most fun things we're going to do all season.

The LMCCOA also awarded scholarships to seniors from Division 2 and 3 schools."It's become so popular. We gave away like $50 the first year, and since then we've grown from one long day to two sessions so we could increase the number of teams. Everyone goes home with a smile on their face, which for officials doesn't always happen."

Paw Paw cheer coach Stefanie Miller, whose team won the Division 3 portion of the meet, said coaches look forward to taking their teams to the meet.

"Absolutely because it's all about community," she said. "We talk to the girls about service and giving back. It's definitely a teachable moment, not only for the kids but for the adults, too, knowing what goes to the seniors."

"What I like best is that it promotes the athletes and all the work they put in. It's about giving back to them," added Brighton coach Christina Wilson, whose team won the Division 1 competition. "So many teams want to attend, and the coaches want the players to have a chance at a scholarship.

"I'm just in awe of seeing so many people there who are willing to give their energy for the kids."

One of Miller's favorite parts of the meet is watching fathers do a cheer "jump off" of their own tongue-in-cheek cheering skills while waiting for the final scores. She also loves volunteers making nearly 200 bows for participants to wear during the meet.

"Fathers do these cheerleader-type (routines) while there is a lull and it's just great," she said. "It's fun stuff like that that makes the day so special. It's all about giving back."

PHOTOS (Top) MHSAA official Jane Plaisted takes a photo with this year’s LMCCOA Division 1 scholarship winners. (Middle) Several officials contribute to making the meet an unforgettable experience. (Below) The LMCCOA also awarded scholarships to seniors from Division 2 and 3 schools. (Photos courtesy of Stacy Smith.)