MOUNT PLEASANT – Croswell-Lexington senior Noelle Golda said her team pushed itself to overcome a different challenge every day in practice this season, which gave it the confidence to shock the state Friday afternoon.
That new-found belief allowed the Pioneers to move past two perennial powers and win the Division 3 competitive cheer championship at McGuirk Arena in Mount Pleasant.
It was the first time Croswell-Lexington finished better than fourth at the Cheer Finals, and it was the first time since 2011 that a school other than Richmond or Pontiac Notre Dame Prep won the D3 title.
“Every day we gave ourselves a different type of challenge so that we could feel what it’s like to break through,” explained Golda, one of eight seniors on the 28-athlete roster, as she wiped away happy tears.
“You have to believe in yourself, and you have to be proud of who you are and where you come from. This is amazing for our school.”
Croswell-Lexington won with a score of 776.72, followed by Notre Dame Prep (776.02) and then Richmond (774.96). Grosse Ile, which turned in the best Round 3 score, was fourth (774.92) and Paw Paw fifth (768.22).
Cros-Lex, as the Sanilac County school located in Michigan’s Thumb is popularly known, finished second in the Blue Water Area Conference, second in Districts and third in Regionals. But on the sport’s biggest stage, nobody handled the pressure better than the Pioneers.
Heading into Round 3, Richmond was in the lead with Notre Dame Prep less than a half-point behind. Cros-Lex sat in a familiar position, in third, just behind those two state powers.
But on this day – after watching those two schools repeatedly win District, Regional and Finals trophies in front of them – it was the Pioneers’ turn to win.
“It was really a matter of finally believing in ourselves – not just that we were a good team, but that we were a state championship team,” said eighth-year Pioneers coach Katie Tomlinson. “We have struggled with that for so long, and today we broke through it.”
Richmond and Notre Dame Prep both struggled uncharacteristically in Round 3 under extreme pressure, while Croswell-Lexington, perhaps a little under the radar in third place, was nearly flawless in the final round.
The shocking, come-from-behind triumph was especially sweet for the Pioneers’ eight seniors, who placed fourth, fifth and fourth at the Finals the past three years – which were the best finishes in school history. Those seniors were Golda, Georgia Calegari, Santanna Horning, Alleyna Martinez, Cassidy Seaman, Emma Six, Maria Tabernero and Deborahann White.
When the final scores were read and Notre Dame was announced as second place – leaving only Croswell-Lexington left to be champion – those seniors and all 28 girls burst out in tears of joy and accomplishment.
“We had a good feeling all day,” explained White. “Something just felt different all day than all of those other competitions. Now we know why – it was our day.”
The Pioneers should be strong again next winter, as junior Shelby Oliver made the all-state second team last season, and junior Cora Katulski earned honorable mention.
Notre Dame Prep, which won five straight D3 titles from 2014-2018, improved on its third-place finishes the past two years. That was little consolation, however, as the Fighting Irish fell short of their goal of a sixth Finals championship by seven-tenths of a point.
Richmond, which had its streak of four consecutive championships snapped, put itself in position for No. 5 with outstanding showings in Rounds 1 and 2, but was unable to deliver in the pivotal final round.
“We have some really young kids, and they have had some good days and some rough days,” explained 15th-year Richmond coach Kelli Matthes. “At the end of the day, the right team won. I’m sad for our kids, but I am truly happy for (Croswell-Lexington).”
The victory was extra satisfying for Tomlinson, a Croswell-Lexington graduate and former competitive cheerleader at the school, who never made it to the Finals while in high school. She clutched the championship trophy tightly as she talked about the progression of the program, which had just nine athletes in 2016, her first season as coach.
“The turning point for us was getting more girls to come out and get buy-in from the parents,” said Tomlinson, who is assisted by Christi Whitican and Avery Falter. “When we started coming here (to the Finals), our goal changed to trying to make the top three.
“Now we are state champs, and I can’t believe it. Now I guess we just have to go back to the drawing board for next year.”
PHOTOS (Top) Croswell-Lexington competes at Friday’s Division 3 Final on the way to winning its first championship. (Middle) Pontiac Notre Dame Prep moved up a spot from 2022 in finishing runner-up.
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
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