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.
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.
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.
"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.)