By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
There’s a clear wall to climb for teams hoping to break into contention at the MHSAA Division 1 Competitive Cheer Finals.
Reigning champion Rochester and 2016 runner-up Grandville have combined to win six titles and finish second six times over the last decade – including the last two seasons when they alternated in the top spots.
Five teams enter tonight’s championship meet at the Grand Rapids DeltaPlex looking to join those powers with a first title. A sixth, Rochester Hills Stoney Creek, won in 2010 and entered the postseason ranked No. 2 and poised to compete as well for the top spot. Following are glances at all eight Division 1 teams competing beginning at 6 p.m. All four Finals will be broadcast live on MHSAA.tv and viewable on a subscription basis.
Rank: No. 8.
League finish: First in Kensington Lakes Activities Association Lakes and overall.
Co-coaches: Christina Wilson, fifth season.
Championship history: Class A runner-up 1999.
Top score: 784.50 at the District.
Team composition: 23 total (eight seniors, seven juniors, eight sophomores).
Outlook: Wilson formerly coached her alma mater Gibraltar Carlson to four Division 2 championships, and this season has Brighton back at the Finals for the first time since 2008. The Bulldogs have scored at least 780 points their last three competitions and four of their last six. Senior Maria Gawronski was second-team all-region last season, and junior Megan Nuffer earned an honorable mention.
Rank: No. 3.
League finish: First in Ottawa-Kent Conference Red.
Coach: Julie Smith-Boyd, 36th season.
Championship history: Six MHSAA titles (most recent 2015), nine runner-up finishes.
Top score: 790.38 at the District.
Team composition: 33 total (14 seniors, six juniors, nine sophomores, four freshmen).
Outlook: Grandville has placed first or second to cap the last three seasons and finished 1.74 points behind Rochester at last season’s Final. The Bulldogs’ average score of 776.2 trails only Sterling Heights Stevenson’s this season, and they’ve put up the top scores in Division 1 in Rounds 1 (239.1, tied) and 2 (232.8). Seniors Daelyn Weir and Kayley Schuitema made the all-state first second last season, while seniors Claire Baker and Olivia Calvin earned honorable mentions.
Rank: No. 9.
League finish: Second in O-K Red.
Coach: Ashley Huyser, first season.
Championship history: Division 1 runner-up 2012.
Top score: 788.32.
Team composition: 27 total (11 seniors, six juniors, three sophomores, seven freshmen).
Outlook: Former Hudsonville standout Huyser, a 2012 grad, took over the program this fall and inherited a team that also made the Finals a year ago. The Eagles enter this weekend with a top score 11 points higher than at this point last season, when they went on to finish seventh. That top score ranks fourth in Division 1 this winter, and Hudsonville has broken 780 four times total and in three of its last four events. Senior Amanda Adams made the all-state first team in 2016.
Rank: Honorable mention.
League finish: Fourth in Oakland Activities Association Red.
Coach: Nicole Hills, fourth season.
Championship history: Seeking first MHSAA Finals top-two finish.
Top score: 780.98 in the Regional.
Team composition: 26 total (nine seniors, seven juniors, six sophomores, four freshmen).
Outlook: Lake Orion went from fifth in its league to sixth in all of Division 1 last season, and is hoping to take a similar step after improving to fourth in the OAA Red, winning its District and finishing fourth at its Regional. The Dragons have upped their overall score the last three meets and enter with a top score two points higher than at this point last season. Senior Sydney Johnson made the all-state second team in 2016, and senior Olivia Duffy earned honorable mention.
Rank: No. 1.
League finish: First in Oakland Activities Association Red.
Coach: Susan Wood, 36th season.
Championship history: Thirteen MHSAA titles (most recent 2016), four runner-up finishes.
Top score: 789.26 in the District.
Team composition: 23 total (eight seniors, 10 juniors, five sophomores).
Outlook: Annually a team others have to chase, Rochester earned its first Division 1 title last season since 2009 and have kept right on rolling this winter with league, District and Regional titles. The Falcons’ top scores for each round this season all rank among the top four in Division 1, with their best Round 3 (320.7) the highest. Seniors Sydney Asuncion and Hope Fryer are returning all-state first teamers, while seniors Megan McMurray and Zy Turner made the second team last season and senior Sam Ellison earned an honorable mention.
Rank: No. 5.
League finish: Second in OAA Red.
Coach: Brooke Miller, third season.
Championship history: Class A runner-up 1996.
Top score: 788.80.
Team composition: 27 total (nine seniors, 10 juniors, five sophomores, three freshmen).
Outlook: Adams is back at the MHSAA Finals for the first time since 1997 after finishing second only to reigning Division 1 champion Rochester in the league, District and Regional this winter. The Highlanders’ average overall score of 771.1 ranks fifth in Division 1, and its top Round 2 and 3 scores both rank among the top four. Junior Allison Mars earned all-region honorable mention last season.
ROCHESTER HILLS STONEY CREEK
Rank: No. 2.
League finish: Third in OAA Red.
Coach: Tricia Williams, 14th season.
Championship history: Division 1 champion 2010.
Top score: 786.68.
Team composition: 23 total (nine seniors, three juniors, nine sophomores, two freshmen).
Outlook: Stoney Creek missed the Finals last season but finished third as recently as 2015 and earned the same place in 2013 and 2012. The Cougars finished third in their league and at their District and fourth at their Regional this winter competing against the other two Rochester schools, and have topped 783 points three of their last five competitions. Their average overall score of 773.1 ranks fourth in Division 1. Senior Jacqueline McCarthy made the all-District first team in 2016.
STERLING HEIGHTS STEVENSON
Rank: No. 4.
League finish: Second in Macomb Area Conference Red.
Coach: Brianna Verdoodt, 12th season.
Championship history: Division 1 runner-up in 2011.
Top score: 785.08 at the Regional.
Team composition: 35 total (one senior, 10 juniors, 24 freshmen)
Outlook: Stevenson has finished seventh and then third the last two seasons, respectively, and enters this weekend with the highest average score in Division 1 at 777 points. The Titans have scored 780 or higher six times including five of their last six events and especially excel at Round 1, where they tie Grandville for highest top score of 239.1. Junior Anna Long made the all-state first team last season, while junior Carolina Poliss made the second team and juniors Lily Juncaj and Izzie Nitecki earned honorable mentions.
PHOTO: Rochester competes in Round 2 during last season's Division 1 Final.
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.”
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