A return of full Downriver League power will make Saturday morning’s Competitive Cheer Final feel much more like what we’re used to from Division 2.
Allen Park is back at Grand Rapids’ Delta Plex seeking a third-consecutive championship, and Gibraltar Carlson is returning after a year away and still sits second on the all-time championships list with 11. Southgate Anderson is a three-time Finals champ, and together they finished first-third in the league and their Regional over these last many weeks.
Division 2 competition begins at 10 a.m. Saturday. Tickets cost $10 and may be bought at the Delta Plex, and all four Finals will be broadcast live on MHSAA.tv and viewable with a subscription. More information, including the spectator seating chart, is posted at MHSAA.com.
Below is a look at all eight finalists:
League finish: First in Downriver League
Coach: Julie Goodwin, 17th season
Championship history: Four MHSAA titles (most recent 2021), four runner-up finishes.
Top score: 794.16.
Team composition: 28 total (nine seniors, 11 juniors, six sophomores, two freshmen).
Outlook: The Jaguars are competing for a third-straight Division 2 title and seventh-straight top-two Finals finish. They are again undefeated heading into Finals weekend, having broken 790 points in five of their last six competitions. Many of the team’s leaders have championship experience and multiple all-state honors – seniors Adreanna Carone and Cassidy Kuhn and junior Emma Buffa are returning first-team selections from 2021, while senior Cassidy Reardon and junior Kristine Beste made the second team last season and juniors Madisyn Setser and Emma Williams earned honorable mentions.
League finish: First in Ottawa-Kent Conference Gold
Coach: Katy Hradsky, first season
Championship history: Seeking first top-two Finals finish.
Top score: 755.08.
Team composition: 17 total (nine seniors, one junior, six sophomores, one freshman).
Outlook: Cedar Springs is making its fourth-straight trip to the Finals and improved from seventh in 2020 to sixth last season. This will be the first appearance with Hradsky as head coach, but she was a major part of the program as the junior varsity coach the previous eight seasons after serving as co-head coach at Sparta from 2011-13. Cedar Springs posted its second-highest score, 753.58, to finish Regional runner-up. Senior Abbey Salisbury made the all-state second team last season.
DEARBORN DIVINE CHILD
League finish: First in Detroit Catholic League Bishop
Co-coaches: Amber Genevich, 19th season; Shelley Popiel, fifth season
Championship history: Division 2 runner-up 2011-14.
Top score: 782.86
Team composition: 20 total (three seniors, three juniors, seven sophomores, seven freshmen)
Outlook: Divine Child is returning to the Finals after two seasons away, riding a wave of strong scores with four straight of 761 or better and three of those reaching at least 773. Senior Makenna Yost and juniors Reese Eberth both earned all-Regional recognition last season.
League finish: Third in Capital Area Activities Conference Red
Coach: Candace Heskitt, 14th season
Championship history: Division 2 runner-up in 2020, 2015 and 2007.
Top score: 765.86 at Regional.
Team composition: 25 total (five seniors, four juniors, five sophomores, 11 freshmen).
Outlook: The Panthers have moved up from sixth in 2019 to third in 2020 to runner-up last season and enter this weekend coming off their first competition championship of this season. DeWitt is trending upward with its four highest scores coming in its four most recent events. Senior Anneliese Phillips made the all-state second team last season, and senior Hilary Ballard earned honorable mention.
League finish: Second in Downriver League
Coach: Alyssa Tocco, first season
Championship history: 11 MHSAA titles (most recent 2019), six runner-up finishes.
Top score: 790.18 at District
Team composition: 23 total (three seniors, nine juniors, three sophomores, eighth freshmen).
Outlook: Carlson is back at the Finals having finished first or second in Division 2 every season from 2008-20. Tocco is a past three-time Division 2 runner-up as an athlete on Allen Park’s team and a national runner-up collegiately, and served as an assistant at Plymouth the last five seasons before taking over the Marauders. They’ve finished first or second at all of their competitions this winter. The team didn’t compete during the 2021 postseason, but senior Destiny Rogers earned an all-state honorable mention in 2020 as a sophomore on that Finals runner-up team.
GRAND RAPIDS FOREST HILLS NORTHERN
League finish: First in O-K White
Coach: Carly Sienkiewicz, fifth season
Championship history: Seeking first top-two Finals finish.
Top score: 757.04
Team composition: 18 total (two seniors, nine juniors, five sophomores, two freshmen).
Outlook: Forest Hills Northern is returning to the Finals for the first time since 1998 after winning its second-straight league title and reaching Regionals for the second time in three seasons. The Huskies’ top four scores have come over their four most recent competitions, including in winning the District title with a 756.82 two weeks ago. Junior Julie Fiser earned all-District recognition last season as FHN just missed advancing.
League finish: Second in O-K Green
Coach: Lisabeth Smith, first season
Championship history: Seeking first top-two Finals finish.
Top score: 750.64 at Regional
Team composition: 23 total (four seniors, nine juniors, three sophomores, six freshmen).
Outlook: Reeths-Puffer is returning to the Finals for the first time since 2018, after winning its District and posting its top score in finishing third at the Regional. Smith is a past Reeths-Puffers cheer athlete and coached in the program immediately after graduation, later taking over the Muskegon High program before taking a few years off and returning to coach the Rockets this winter. Reeths-Puffer just missed the Finals last season, but seniors Lillyanna Schoonbeck and Summer Curtis, junior Makenna Anthony and sophomore Kendall Eek all earned all-Regional recognition.
League finish: Third in Downriver League.
Coach: Colette Norscia, 19th season
Championship history: Division 1 champion 2012, 2013 and 2014.
Top score: 782.44 at District.
Team composition: 22 total (four seniors, 10 juniors, three sophomores, five freshmen).
Outlook: Anderson improved from sixth in 2020 to a close fifth last season, and its top score this season is more than six points higher than heading into last year’s Finals. The Titans have surpassed 771 three times and 761 in seven competitions. Senior Savannah Thomas and juniors Bella Plonka and Alexis Morris earned all-Regional recognition last season.
PHOTO Allen Park competes during last year’s Round 1 at Breslin Center. (Click for more 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.)