MIDDLEVILLE – Thornapple-Kellogg senior Anna Benedict remembers competing in Rocket Cheer when she was in elementary school and looking up to the varsity cheerleaders who were there helping her.
Those same girls made it to the MHSAA Finals in competitive cheer, and Benedict aspired one day to reach the same level as her role models.
“I was coached by those girls, and as a little girl that was my dream,” Benedict said. “I wanted to go to the state finals when I was in the cheer program, and it would be so awesome to be back there.”
The Trojans haven’t appeared in the Finals since 2015, when they placed fifth in Division 2, but they are currently in the process of changing that.
A successful start to this season has created a belief that a return to the Finals is within reach.
“There is so much motivation,” T-K senior Zoey Thomas said. “We practice in the big gym and we have all our banners with the different sports, and that is one of our biggest motivations.
“Our coach will point up at the banners and will talk about adding years to conference, Districts, Regionals and state.”
Thomas, a three-sport athlete like many on the team, wants to end her time at the school competing with the best in the state.
“We haven’t been there since 2015, and personally, one of my goals is to end my high school career by going to state in one of my three sports,” Thomas said. “It would be so cool to go for competitive cheer my senior year.”
While the Finals are still more than six weeks away, the Trojans are on an upward trajectory.
T-K is perfect so far this season, the latest win coming in Wednesday’s first Ottawa-Kent Conference Gold jamboree.
The Trojans also won their own invitational last weekend by producing season-high scores in every round.
Prior to that, they captured victories at the West Catholic Invitational and Blue Devil Invitational.
“We’ve had a strong start for sure, and we are just trying to keep the momentum moving throughout the season and into Districts, hopefully Regionals and even going for the state finals,” T-K coach Adrian Sinkler said. “The biggest thing I keep telling them is to be consistent and just go out and have fun. We have to have stronger performances every time, and so far they’ve definitely done that.”
Fourteen athletes make up this year’s team, led by six experienced seniors.
Other key standouts include seniors Ruby Frei and Aundria Robbe, junior Presley Hall and sophomores Mali Holland, Kenady Smith and Ava Jahnke.
“We are not a school that goes to the state finals every year,” Benedict said. “So it would be cool to show that we can do it. Our season has played out well so far, and we all want it so bad. This team is willing to try anything to try and do it.”
The Trojans currently have the fourth-highest score (719.9) in Division 2, but they are not settling.
“We’ve had good success so far, but we have to continue to put in the work and not get comfortable,” Benedict said. “We have to understand that nothing will be given. Every competition is different, and you can’t predict anything. We can’t stop working hard and we just have to better ourselves.”
Added Thomas: “It took a lot of work to get to this point, and it’s not something that has come easy. It’s been hours upon hours of just cleaning, fixing and changing things. It’s been grueling work, but absolutely worth it, and it’s paid off so far. We're not done yet.”
Sinkler has an invested interest in the program as an alumnus.
She was a member of the first Trojans team to qualify for the Finals in 2012.
“It’s been a while since we’ve been there, and we’re trying to get them to go back,” Sinkler said. “They mesh really well and get along while also keeping each other in check, respectfully.
“They are different kids, and they are very calm, collected and very coachable. That keeps them pushing for something bigger. We have a big senior class and this is their last shot, so they want to leave a legacy and leave their seeds of knowledge back to the underclassmen.”
T-K has been solid in all three rounds, but especially its third.
A few tweaks have been made to improve the complexity and energy in that round, and it’s led to an enhanced confidence level.
“We made some changes a few weeks ago because we just weren’t loving the ending of it,” Sinkler said. “As a coach, it just didn’t do it for me and it didn’t give me that ‘wow,’ so we changed it. It’s definitely worked in our favor.”
Benedict said the third round has become the Trojans’ favorite.
“We’ve gotten better since the changes, and we’ve added a lot of difficulty,” she said. “As the round goes on, the stunts get more difficult, and that’s what makes it so good and so fun to watch.”
Dean Holzwarth has covered primarily high school sports for Grand Rapids-based WOOD-TV for four years after serving at the Grand Rapids Press and MLive for 16 years along with shorter stints at the Ionia Sentinel and WZZM. Contact him at [email protected] with story ideas for Allegan, Kent and Ottawa counties.
PHOTOS (Top) Middleville Thornapple-Kellogg celebrates its championship at its invitational Saturday. (Middle) The Trojans are seeking to reach their first MHSAA Finals in competitive cheer since 2015. (Photos courtesy of the T-K 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