By Tom Kendra
Special for Second Half
GRAND RAPIDS – Coming into this season, Hudson had just one MHSAA Finals championship in competitive cheer – to go with five runner-up finishes.
Those close calls have made the Tigers better, not bitter, especially last year’s razor-thin heartbreaker to perennial powerhouse Pewamo-Westphalia by less than four tenths of a point.
“Honestly, the runner-ups have been motivation to work on all the little things and to push us to where we are today,” said senior Anna Valdez.
Where Hudson is today is atop the Division 4 cheer world, after using a powerhouse second round to take the lead and then holding off a furious charge from P-W on Saturday at the Delta Plex.
Hudson won with 770 points, followed by P-W with 767.80 and Addison at 762.36. Those top three teams separated themselves early on, with Adrian Madison finishing a distant fourth at 751.34.
The Tigers, who had four runner-up finishes before breaking through for a title in 2018, have now won two of the past three years.
It sure didn’t look like it was going to be Hudson’s day early on. The Tigers drew the first slot in Round 1 and came out flat, trailing not only rival P-W, but also Addison (coached by Jessica Sword, daughter of Hudson coach Kelly Bailey), entering Round 2.
“It’s always hard to go first in Round 1,” explained Bailey, who is in her 23rd year as Hudson’s coach. “That’s a tough spot to be in, and we were really nervous today and I’m not sure why.”
Despite the shaky start, the Tigers delivered a virtuoso performance in Round 2, which is judged primarily on precision and synchronization.
Hudson’s Round 2 score of 227.70 was 5.4 points better than the next best score in that round, turned in by Pewamo-Westphalia (222.30).
“We definitely knew we had some wobbles in Round 1 and it wasn’t our best,” said Valdez, one of five seniors on Hudson’s roster. “Round 2 has always been our power round and the round that always gets us ahead by a little bit.”
That dynamite showing turned a half-point deficit into a nearly five-point lead entering the final round.
However, Bailey and her team were not taking anything for granted against a Pewamo-Westphalia team known for dominating Round 3. Exhibit A happened just one year ago, when the Pirates came from behind and edged the Tigers by less than a half-point.
P-W, which has won nine Finals titles and now has 11 runner-up finishes, certainly did its part. The Pirates went fifth out of eight teams and delivered the best Round 3 score in the Division 4 field at 313.0.
Hudson was next up and the pressure was on to avoid a repeat of one year ago. The Tigers delivered a solid, if not spectacular, Round 3 to hold on for the championship.
The win was particularly satisfying for Hudson’s five seniors – Valdez, Lyndsey Tanner, Anna Loar, Savanna Proudfoot and Summer Walker – who will graduate with two championships and two runner-up finishes during their four years of high school.
Bailey, who, in her 23rd year, is one of the deans of the state’s competitive cheer coaches, is also one of the most calm on the coaching podium – leaving all of the clapping and gesturing to her two assistants, Lyndsi Hall and Jacque Marry.
“I want to be calm up there,” explained Bailey, whose team was champion of the Lenawee County Athletic Association and won all but one of its competitions this winter. “I don’t want to confuse them or make them think that I’m upset with something.
“That’s always been my style. I’m still the same – the girls keep getting stronger and more athletic every year, though.”
Munising (742.30) took fifth, ahead of St. Charles, Grand Rapids NorthPointe Christian and East Jordan.
PHOTOS: (Top) Hudson held on for its second Division 4 championship in three seasons Saturday at the Delta Plex. (Middle) Reigning champion Pewamo-Westphalia ended runner-up, its 20th top-two Finals 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