By Dean Holzwarth
Special for Second Half
GRAND RAPIDS – The Hudson competitive cheer team has been a staple at the MHSAA Finals for nearly two decades with 19 appearances, including 18 straight.
But the Tigers had been unable to reach the pinnacle of the sport.
A long time in the making, Hudson’s perseverance finally paid off when it captured that seemingly elusive Division 4 title Saturday at the DeltaPlex.
The Tigers delivered three solid rounds en route to a season-high 769.26 total and the program’s first Finals victory.
Sanford Meridian (756.86) edged Adrian Madison (756.56) for runner-up honors by three tenths of a point.
“I knew it was going to be when the opportunity came,” Hudson coach Kelly Bailey said. “We’ve had great teams in the past, and I knew one time luck would meet with our opportunity, and we would do it. This was the year, and we had a great group of girls.”
The Tigers placed runner-up at the Finals five times, including three straight years from 2008-2010.
They finished a close second again last season to Breckenridge, which didn’t field a team this year after winning three consecutive Finals.
“I’m on cloud nine right now,” Hudson senior Payge Leathers said. “The feeling is unexplainable. This is my fourth year at the state finals, but finally breaking through and winning a state title has been the most overwhelming and exciting experience of my life.”
The Tigers, who won the Lenawee County Athletic Association crown, were ranked No. 5 entering the postseason.
“I knew it from the beginning this year,” Hudson senior Shiann Martinus said. “We clicked so well all year, and I’ve never had a team so bonded. We all wanted the same goal and we did anything to get it, and we got it.
“We were three points away last year so we definitely didn’t want to cut it close this year, and we practiced like crazy.”
Hudson held a slim two-point lead entering the final round, but pulled away from the field with an impressive Round 3.
It capped the meet with a high score of 316.60, eight points better than the next closest team.
“They did a fabulous job in Round 3, and you can’t ask for anything more,” Bailey said. “They were under the most pressure they could be going last and everybody had stuck their cheers. There was two points separating us, and they nailed it.”
Bailey took a different approach to this year’s Finals and didn’t put extra pressure on the team with high expectations.
“We tried to really focus on celebrating our year today, that it wasn’t a competition,” she said. “It was a celebration of our year from the start, and we really focused on having fun. All the work was over, and this is what the hard work was for. They just needed to have a blast today.”
The squad, which featured five seniors, didn’t concentrate on anything but its own effort.
“The whole time nobody focused on a state title,” Martinus said. “We focused on going out to do our best. This (title) comes with it when you do your best.”
Sanford Meridian also had a breakthrough performance in earning its first top-two finish at the Finals.
This was the Mustangs’ third appearance, and they didn’t qualify last year after placing sixth at Regionals.
“We knew we could either take it or be within the top three,” longtime Sanford Meridian coach Val MacKenzie said. “I think our goal was met, and it was a goal we constantly worked toward.”
The Mustangs, who had no seniors on the roster, jumped into contention with a stellar Round 2 that accumulated the highest score of the day, 224.16.
“The girls have worked really hard this year and we’ve really concentrated on our Round 2 with our tumbling and getting back tucks, because we knew that’s what it was going to take to get us where we needed to be,” MacKenzie said. “I’m very proud of how they bought into the program, and they are so dedicated. They are just a good bunch of girls.”
PHOTOS: (Top) Hudson performs a routine on the way to winning the Division 4 title Saturday. (Middle) Sanford Meridian raises its runner-up trophy after its first top-two 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