By Dean Holzwarth
Special for Second Half
GRAND RAPIDS – Last season, the Gibraltar Carlson competitive cheer team felt the pain of watching an unprecedented streak come to an end, by the smallest of margins, at the MHSAA Division 2 Final.
The Marauders redeemed themselves a year later, and reclaimed the title that eluded them.
Carlson led wire-to-wire Saturday morning en route to winning the Division 2 championship at the DeltaPlex with a three-round total of 791.98.
“Obviously, losing by .06 is like a knife to the stomach, but I think they definitely took it in stride and took it in,” Marauders coach Ayrn Ziesmer said, referring to the margin that placed her team second instead of first in 2017. “Even this season was a struggle, but we really tried to make sure it was all about the climb, and the final day, because nothing before that really matters.”
Allen Park, which stopped Carlson’s six-year reign at the top last year, placed runner-up this time tallying a 786.58.
It was the Marauders’ 10th MHSAA title. They’ve won it nine times in the last 11 years and finished runner-up the two years they didn’t win.
“Winning is a feeling you can’t get anywhere else in life, and coming from a program like Carlson it is really difficult to lose,” Ziesmer said. “So bringing the title back after that loss was super important and the best feeling ever.”
Emily Scheffler, one of six Carlson seniors, said last year’s runner-up finish provided the perfect motivation.
“It really just broke our hearts, but it fueled our fire,” she said. “Coming back into this season we knew we could do it, and we did it.”
Carlson produced high scores in each round. It opened with a 237.80 in Round 1 and followed with a 232.08 in Round 2 to build a three-point advantage entering the final round.
Ziesmer said she didn’t know where her team stood throughout the competition.
“I didn’t look at scores today so I had no idea where we had fallen in any of the rounds, and it made it that much more fun,” she said. “I think the girls liked not knowing where they were, and I had nothing to say to them other than go out and do your best.
“I couldn’t have asked for anything more today. I thought they went out there and delivered in every single round.”
The Marauders won the Downriver League earlier this season ahead of Allen Park, but finished runner-up to the Jaguars at their Regional.
“I feel like this season was a rollercoaster, but we did it and I’m so proud of everyone on my team,” senior Hannah Pryba said. “I feel like we deserved it this year.”
Carlson capped the day with a strong Round 3 routine, securing the win with a 322.10 score.
“I think what this year’s Round 3 had that maybe last year’s didn’t was that emotional component,” Ziesmer said. “I felt like they wanted it so bad because they didn’t get it last year, that it was so emotional. Their heart was really on their sleeve.”
Added senior Samantha Zdankiewicz: “After Round 3 you just get that feeling and just know in your heart you put everything into it. It’s so special for the seniors to leave with a state championship and come back from all we’ve been through with the ups and downs.”
Allen Park coach Julie Goodwin figured it would be another close encounter with the area rival.
“It was a battle, and it’s been a battle all year,” Goodwin said. “We’ve gone back and forth and they are a highly-respected team. If you want to be the best you have to beat the best, so today was a battle and it was their day.”
The Jaguars put pressure on Carlson with a Round 3 score of 320.40.
“I’m proud of my girls, and they left everything on the mat,” Goodwin said. “We had an awesome round 3 today and it was a privilege to be here at the state finals and be runner-up. I couldn’t ask for anything more.”
PHOTOS: (Top) Gibraltar Carlson performs part of a top-scoring routine during Saturday’s title run. (Middle) Allen Park celebrates its 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
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