By Dean Holzwarth
Special for Second Half
KENTWOOD – As a freshman, Kylie Dunn remembers when she received the letter stating that she had made the East Kentwood competitive cheer team.
“When I got on the team I was super thankful to Coach, and I’ve been working my butt off just to prove to her how thankful I was for her to take me on the team,” Dunn said. “And I just think that since this is her last year, and this is my last year, it makes it even more special that we get to end it together.”
Dunn, one of nine seniors on this year’s roster, is currently helping make this season a memorable one for departing coach Stacy Geerts.
Geerts announced before the winter began that this would be her final one, ending a successful 25-year coaching career that has included the past 17 years at East Kentwood.
“I think it’s time,” Geerts said. “The last couple years I’ve been saying this might be my last year, but then there are those girls that I start coaching that I can’t see myself not being there for the four years.”
Geerts, who’s guided the Falcons to 14 MHSAA Finals appearances and a pair of runner-up finishes (2004 and 2010), will pass the reins of the program to former athlete Alona Blake.
Blake was on Geerts’ first competitive cheer team at East Kentwood.
“I went into it already knowing that I wanted it to be my last year and I wanted to make sure I was leaving it in good hands,” Geerts said. “I didn’t want to leave and have some random person take over my program. She has been with me for a while, and I know she will be awesome.”
The No. 4-ranked Falcons are in the midst of a banner run after enjoying regular-season success that has spilled over to the postseason.
East Kentwood has won nine meets, the most of any team in Geerts’ career, and recently claimed an Ottawa-Kent Conference Red and Division 1 District championships.
The Falcons’ success, however, wasn’t necessarily forecasted.
“Last year we lost a lot of seniors that were pretty crucial to this team, so I thought it was going to be a rebuilding year,” East Kentwood senior Sophie Bensyl said. “But on that first day of practice, I just knew there was something special. Once we got into it and started working, we knew we would go far.”
Even Geerts had early doubts about whether this team could reach greater heights.
“I did not know they were going to be as good as they have turned out to be,” Geerts said. “I knew they had the talent, and the leadership with the seniors would be good, but I did not know to the extent of how good this team would be.”
This year’s squad has combined humility, desire and work ethic to become one of the state’s best.
“The girls have been amazing,” Geerts said. “We win on a Saturday and they come back Monday and don’t act like they’ve ever won. They just come back and want to work that much harder, and this is the hardest working team I have ever coached.
“We don’t have a weak round this year, and they are humble and hungry all the time to win. It’s been a dream year, and I could not have written out a better year for my story to end this way.”
Dunn has been excited about the growth and commitment from the entire team.
“This is my 10th year of cheering and I’ve never been on a team full of so many dedicated and hard-working girls,” she said. “It’s like all the puzzle pieces are coming together for my last year, and I love this team.”
“It’s the most fun I’ve had in competitive cheer, and our team is something special,” Bensyl added. “We have a bond like no other, and it’s really cool to be able to be together every day at practice and at competitions.”
Other key standouts on the squad include seniors Ciara Green and Macy Brown, sophomores Trinity Nery, Ajla Zukic and Shelly Pham and junior Autumn Burns.
After a lengthy string of consecutive solid showings at the Finals, the Falcons failed to advance in 2015, and they missed out again last season.
The goal this year was to return to the Finals, and they will get the opportunity Saturday at the Regional at Brighton.
The top four teams advance to the Finals, March 2 at the Grand Rapids DeltaPlex.
“We have a tough region, but our District is as hard as our region and we compete in such a tough conference,” Geerts said. “The competition just makes us better every week, and we don’t compare ourselves to anybody. We are just out to do the best we can, and if they can do the best they can do without mistakes then we will win.
“That has been proven week after week, and I’m hoping that holds true for Regionals.”
And what would it mean if the Falcons can make a trip to the Finals?
“It gives me butterflies just thinking about it,” Dunn said. “It would show that all of our hard work is paying off and the hours of practice we do every day mean something. We are very privileged to be on a team where we have an amazing coach and amazing girls on the team. Not everyone gets to have that.”
Added Bensyl: “This is the last season for the seniors and for Coach, so we’re pretty motivated to do that for her. This is her year to go out big.”
Dean Holzwarth covered primarily high school sports for the Grand Rapids Press and MLive for 16 years and more recently served as sports editor of the Ionia Sentinel and as a sports photojournalist for WZZM. Contact him at [email protected] with story ideas for Allegan, Kent and Ottawa counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) East Kentwood competes on its home floor this season. (Middle) The Falcons celebrate one of their championships this winter. (Photos courtesy of the East Kentwood competitive cheer program.)
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.)