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.)
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