By Dean Holzwarth
Special to Second Half
GRAND RAPIDS – Gibraltar Carlson senior Sarah Tritt was sporting three shiny MHSAA championship rings on her left hand following Saturday’s competitive cheer Division 2 Final.
She soon will be adding another one to the collection.
“Yes, we are going to be designing our fourth one,” Tritt said after the Marauders captured their fourth consecutive Division 2 crown at The DeltaPlex.
Gibraltar Carlson tallied a three-round score of 780.10, while Dearborn Divine Child placed runner-up for the fourth year in a row with a 772.24 total. Allen Park finished third at 769.06.
The Marauders continued their string of dominance in Division 2. They have won the Finals six of the last eight years and were runners-up in 2010.
“It never gets old,” Gibraltar Carlson coach Danielle Jokela said. “I think that these kids did something that was close to impossible – they won four state titles in a row.”
In fact, the Downriver League champions never lost a competition this season – an impressive feat in itself, especially considering the league includes four MHSAA Finals qualifiers and three-time reigning Division 1 champion Southgate Anderson.
“This is the first season that I’ve ever coached an undefeated team where they have won every single competition,” Jokela said. “They fought hard, they did everything I asked them to do, and today they became state champions.”
Tritt joined teammates Alexis Kopchia and Maelyn Russo as the only seniors to compete on the mat all four years at the Finals.
“This feeling is indescribable,” Tritt said. “It’s like nothing I could ever imagine, and I could not ask for anything more. We were able to overcome so much this year and we pushed through it all and still were able to end on top every time.”
Senior Kiah Manthei agreed with her coach – winning championships never gets old.
“No, it feels better every time,” Manthei said. “This year’s team is the best that we’ve had. There was no drama and we’re all really close. We just knew today that if we performed how we practiced, that it was ours.”
Gibraltar Carlson charged to an early advantage with a pair of dominating rounds.
It posted high scores in Round 1 (234.9) and Round 2 (230.1).
“Round 1 has been our saving grace this year and is amazing, and we have very talented girls in Round 2 who have beautiful skills,” Jokela said. “Getting those high scores definitely boosted our confidence and kept us ahead. That’s what won the state title for us.”
The Marauders held a nearly eight-point cushion entering the final round.
“It’s always good to be a little ahead after Rounds 1 and 2,” Tritt said. “It makes it so much easier going into Round 3.”
Gibraltar Carlson registered a 315.1 in Round 3, which was the third highest among the eight teams.
“We nailed the first two and Round 3 was good enough to seal the deal,” Jokela said.
Dearborn Divine Child, which won the Detroit Catholic League title, trailed Gibraltar Carlson by four points after Round 1 despite scoring a solid 230.2 to open the Final.
It had another superb Round 2 (226.84), and capped the day with the second-highest Round 3 score (315.2).
“It was their goal today to hit three perfect rounds, and really, at the end of the day, we don’t have any control over anyone else or what the judges give us or anybody else,” Falcons coach Amber Genevich said. “They haven’t hit three perfect rounds all season and they did that today. We would’ve loved to finish first, but we’re proud because not many teams here can say that they hit solid rounds, and we did.”
While the frustration of placing runner-up again still lingered, Genevich said this year’s team peaked at the end of the year.
“You get a little tired of being second best, but this year’s second place feels a little different than maybe last year,” she said. “We weren’t a second place team all season. We were third place or fourth place, so we had to work from the bottom and really climb our way to the top.”
PHOTOS: (Top) Gibraltar Carlson athletes look into the crowd during Saturday’s Round 2. (Middle) Dearborn Divine Child performs its Round 3 routine. (Click for action and team photos from Hockey Weekly Action Photos.)
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.)