By Tom Kendra
Special for Second Half
GRAND RAPIDS – Nothing can slow down the Gibraltar Carlson competitive cheer dynasty.
The Marauders – who had won 10 MHSAA titles, including seven of the past eight in Division 2 – came into this season with a first-year coach and just three seniors.
No worries, as the young Carlson team notched title No. 11 with a powerhouse performance Saturday morning in the Division 2 Finals at the Delta Plex.
“We are motivated to keep the dynasty alive, for all the girls that came before and those that are to come,” said first-year coach Ann Hajec, who was a first-team all-stater on Carlson’s 2013 championship team. “We knew it would be close again with Allen Park, it has been all year, but we had enough in Round 3 to pull it out.”
Hajec said the emotions of the Finals are similar as a coach to those she felt as a competitor.
“The heart and fire I feel are the same, but I just have to put it into the girls,” said Hajec, who is assisted by Jordyn Hodge, Tam Christiansen, Emily Howard and Kourtney Tyra.
Carlson got off to a great start in Round 1, then clinched the title with a dominating Round 3, where years of tradition and great expectations came together in a powerful finish. The Marauders won with a three-round total of 791.40.
Pushing Carlson to greater heights, as it has all season and, frankly, the past four years, was Downriver League rival Allen Park.
While Friday night’s Division 1 Finals turned into “The Battle of Rochester” (with Stoney Creek prevailing over Adams), Saturday morning quickly became “The Battle of Downriver” between Carlson and Allen Park.
The Jaguars, who bested Carlson at the conference tournament last month, used the meet’s best score in Round 2 to pull within one point heading into Round 3, but were unable to take the next step.
Allen Park took second with 787.92, followed by Muskegon Mona Shores (777.92) and Dearborn Divine Child (771.94).
It marked the third time in the past four years that Allen Park finished runner-up to Carlson. Allen Park won the championship in 2017.
“We go neck-and-neck with them all the time, so this was nothing new,” said 14th-year Allen Park coach Julie Goodwin, who said the draw, with her team going first in the crucial third round, may have played a factor in the outcome. “Going into that last round, I told them to go out and have fun and do what they do. I thought we performed very well.”
Hajec became the fifth coach to lead Carlson to a Finals championship.
Carlson’s first title came in Class B back in 1995 under Pat Christiansen. The Marauders then won four titles between 2008 and 2012 under Christina Wilson, two in 2013 and 2014 under Danielle Jokela and then three in the past four years led by Aryn Ziesmer.
Carlson’s 11 Finals championships are second in state history behind Rochester’s 14 titles. Breckenridge is third with 10.
Carlson senior Summer Bojarski, along with McKinley Gessner and Kennedy Turner, are the only seniors on this year’s Carlson team. The future continues to be bright with seven sophomores and seven freshmen on the team.
“I personally have such a satisfied feeling right now because I know I did my job and kept the dynasty going for another year,” said Bojarski. “I wanted to show the younger girls that in order to win, you have to want it more than anything else. You have to love the sport, because that energy shows when you’re out on the mat.”
Bojarski is a returning all-stater from last season, along with sophomore Maguire Lindisch. Stewart, junior Sarah Klim and sophomore Alex Stewart all made second team all-state last year, and juniors Rylee Demers and Elliah Shank were honorable mention.
Cedar Springs placed fifth, followed by DeWitt, Grand Rapids Kenowa Hills and Walled Lake Western.
PHOTOS: (Top) Gibraltar Carlson performs a routine during its run to the Division 2 title Saturday morning. (Middle) Allen Park finished runner-up to the league rival Jaguars.
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