MOUNT PLEASANT – The joyful outpouring and high-pitched shrieks that rocked McGuirk Arena in Mount Pleasant at 8:20 p.m. Thursday were six years in the making.
That was the exact moment when the final scores were read and Rochester realized it had edged its archrival from down the road, three-time reigning champion Rochester Adams, by less than a single point to win its first MHSAA Division 1 competitive cheer championship since 2017.
There were screams, leaps, smiles and hugs – the kind of pure emotion that is rare, but happens in high-level sporting competition.
“It doesn’t feel real,” Rochester senior Ava Grabke said amongst the chaos. “All the hard work we’ve put in this season, really all of these years, finally did pay off.”
Rochester won with a three-round total of 790.62, with Adams less than a point behind at 789.72.
The third high school in the Rochester Community Schools district, Rochester Hills Stoney Creek (787.56), placed third, followed by Brighton (317.10) and Grandville (316.80).
The back story is that Rochester has the most cheer titles in state history (now 15), but in recent years, rival Adams has had the upper hand – winning the past three Division 1 championships and edging the Falcons at this season’s District and Regional, making the Highlanders favorites to “four-peat” at the Final.
Instead, it was Rochester, under the direction of first-year coach Samantha Koehler, which got off to a great start in Round 1 and held off a fierce challenge from Adams.
“We had one of our best Round 1 performances of the season today and, obviously, there’s no better time for that than the state finals,” said Koehler, who was a highly-successful head coach at Plymouth before taking over the Rochester program last year from legendary coach Susan Wood.
“It just goes to show that every round matters – every point, every decimal.”
Rochester had a 1.4-point lead after the first round, but Adams trimmed that to 0.9 points by getting the best score in Round 2 – setting the stage for a pressure-packed Round 3.
Stoney Creek and Hartland were also within striking distance and went early in Round 3, but were unable to make a big move.
Rochester vs. Adams took place in the sixth and seventh spots, respectively, in the Round 3 rotation. Both teams were outstanding under pressure and, fittingly, ended up with identical scores of 321.10 in the final round – giving Rochester the overall win by that nine tenths of a point.
“I think going first in that opening round hurt us a little bit,” said ninth-year Adams coach Brooke Miller. “We started a little lower than we expected and even though we won Round 2 and tied them in Round 3, we couldn’t overcome it.”
It was the fourth Finals runner-up finish to go with the three championships for the Highlanders, who had 12 seniors out of 28 athletes on the roster.
Among those seniors, Katie Burgin, Alex Ris and Ashley Rosati were all returning all-state second-team selections, and Emma Maynard and Peyton Regalado were honorable mention choices in 2022.
“Knowing we lost by less than a point is hard to take,” said Adams senior Ava Bolin. “But at the same time, there’s no better feeling than knowing when you get off the mat for the last time that there’s nothing else you could have done. That’s how we felt today.”
Koehler said the rivalry between the three Rochester schools and Oakland Activities Association Red rivals is incredibly intense, but for the most part, very positive. She has an ongoing group chat with Miller and Stoney Creek coach Tricia Williams where they wish each other the best.
“I really don’t have an explanation about how our three Rochester schools are 1, 2, 3 in the state, other than iron sharpens iron,” said Koehler. “We see them pretty much every weekend during the season, and it’s always super close. We know we have to keep working and improving to keep up with them.”
The victory was particularly sweet for the Falcons’ nine seniors, especially after failing to qualify for the Finals in 2021 and then placing fifth last year.
Rochester’s nine seniors were Grabke, Amelia Craft, Emily Isabell, Juliet Jones, Elizabeth Dyki, Maeve Losh, Martina Dedvukaj, Shreya Pillai and Wanja Kamau – all of whom enjoyed one final group rendition of the Rochester program’s theme song, “You Gotta Be” by Des’ree, this time on the McGuirk championship mat.
“It felt great,” Dedvukaj said with a smile. “It was like all the hard work and everything that happened over the past four years led us to this moment.”
PHOTOS (Top) Rochester competes during Thursday’s Division 1 Final at McGuirk Arena. (Middle) Rochester Adams takes the mat on the way to a runner-up finish.
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