By Dean Holzwarth
Special for Second Half
GRAND RAPIDS – The Gibraltar Carlson competitive cheer team entered Saturday with the opportunity to make MHSAA history.
The pressures involved with the astounding feat didn’t faze the Marauders at all.
Gibraltar Carlson led from start to finish during the Division 2 Final at the DeltaPlex and became the first cheer team to win six consecutive MHSAA championships, regardless of class or division.
The Marauders previously were tied with Rochester (1999-2003) for the longest streak. They snapped the deadlock with a convincing win ahead of runner-up and Downriver League rival Allen Park.
“Going for six in a row, which had never been done in cheerleading, was a lot of pressure,” second-year Gibraltar Carlson coach Ayrn Ziesmer said. “I’ve done a lot of things in my life that I’m proud of, but I will never be a living legend, and that’s what they are today. They will go down in history as the first team in cheerleading to win six in a row, and that is something that can never be taken from them.”
The Marauders posted a final score of 786.26, while the Jaguars finished at 777.62 to edge third-place Grand Rapids Kenowa Hills (774.80).
Gibraltar Carlson’s historic effort was accomplished with a youthful group. One senior and one junior combined with 11 sophomores and seven freshmen to spark the top-ranked squad.
The lone senior, Mary Miller, became the only girl to be a part of the team’s last four MHSAA championships.
“It’s so relieving to go out on top, and this is unreal,” Miller said. “When I was a freshman and we three-peated, I never thought it would be my senior year and the only one doing it for six and making history. I’m very proud of my team right now and the coaching staff.”
Miller said the pressure to carry on the tradition was intense.
“There’s a lot of pressure walking in here and knowing that everyone wants to see you fall because they want a new champion,” she said. “But for me, that fueled my fire and made me want to prove everybody wrong.”
The string of titles for Gibraltar Carlson began in 2011 under coach Christina Wilson and then transitioned to Danielle Jokela in 2013. She passed the reins to Ziesmer last season, and the success never wavered.
“There are a lot of expectations for this program, and they are expected to be better than everybody else every day,” Ziesmer said. “They are held to a higher standard, so I’m extremely proud that they were able to live up to it and win by the margin that they did today.”
The Marauders held a six-point advantage heading into Round 3. They cemented their place in history by posting a 319.40.
“It’s our money round,” junior Jordyn Hodge said. “It’s my favorite round to compete in, personally, and we just have fun. Hitting it just makes everyone want to do it over and over again.
“This season has been amazing, and it means a lot for all of our hard work to pay off. Working hard for nine months, getting here and then doing it.”
The Marauders posted high scores in each round, something they didn’t produce a year ago.
“We lost Round 2, so when we left last year it was a kind of a we-wanted-more feeling,” Ziesmer said. “But this year they won all three rounds by a pretty big margin, and that is such a satisfying feeling. To know that I, or the team, couldn’t have done anything better. They have no regrets.”
Allen Park placed in the top-two for the first time since winning a Division 2 title in 2010. The Jaguars also were young, boasting a bevy of underclassmen.
“I have a very young team, and they were hungry,” Allen Park coach Julie Goodwin said. “They’ve been working hard, and they did an outstanding job today. Our goals today were to just put out our best rounds, have fun and make memories. We knew it was going to be a battle today, and our Round 3 was awesome.”
PHOTOS: (Top) Gibraltar Carlson holds a stunt on the way to winning a record sixth straight MHSAA cheer championship. (Middle) Allen Park finished second, its highest since winning Division 2 in 2010.
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
February: Hart girls & boys basketball - Report
January: Taylor Trillium Academy girls bowling - Report
December: Byron Center hockey - Report
November: Martin football - Report
October: Gladwin volleyball - Report
September: Negaunee girls tennis - Report