By Dean Holzwarth
Special for Second Half
GRAND RAPIDS – The Fight for Four took on a whole different meaning for the Pontiac Notre Dame Prep competitive cheer team this season.
While the Fighting Irish pursued a fourth straight Division 3 title Saturday night, the squad also was committed to honoring a 2013 graduate, Kristy Malter, who died last summer after suffering from bacterial meningitis.
Notre Dame Prep carried a sign proudly that read, “Fight for Four” with “4K” in the corner.
“We had one mission and one goal this year,” said Fighting Irish coach Beth Campbell. “We lost a girl over the summer to bacteria meningitis and she was one of our alumni so we decided then that the season was going to be 100 percent for her.
“You see us doing the 4K and that’s for Kristy. We kept our eyes focused on that and we wanted to represent our school, Kristy and her family. That was our main focus for the whole year.”
Miss Malter would’ve been proud of her former team, as it won the MHSAA Division 3 Final at Grand Rapids DeltaPlex with a narrow victory over rival Richmond.
The No.2-ranked Fighting Irish finished with a final score of 315.90, while the top-ranked Blue Devils tallied a 314.70.
It was Notre Dame Prep’s fourth consecutive MHSAA title.
“I’ve never been more proud of how these girls came out here,” Campbell said. “It was not one round; it was all three rounds. It was their best performance of the year, and I think they had the most heart I’ve ever seen out on that mat.
“We knew it was going to be a tough competition, but they were so determined to do this for Kristy. It was always our focus, and they knew that they had to give their best.”
Five Notre Dame Prep seniors capped their high school careers with four Division 3 championships: Sarah Nantel, Grace Mackey, Jennifer Redoutey, Caroline Hauck and Anne Seyferth.
“It was for Kristy this whole time, but I think we just wanted to prove to ourselves that we could be better than we were,” Nantel said. “It’s all about beating yourself and proving what other people thought wasn’t possible. We were going to be proud no matter the outcome, but we came out on top.”
The Fighting Irish won the first two rounds by the slimmest of margins over Richmond before the decisive Round 3.
“It felt so good to put our best on the floor, and we knew if we hit the way we know we could that whatever happens, happens, but I think we peaked today,” Redoutey said. “Today was our best day, and we showed a lot of heart. If we could make our parents, our alumni and our Kristy proud … that was the goal this season. All of this just makes it sweeter.”
Richmond, which won the Blue Water Area Conference, suffered another heartbreaking finish. It placed as Final runner-up for a third straight season.
The Blue Devils were poised for redemption, but a rare fall in Round 3 doused their hopes of regaining the crown they won in 2012 and 2013.
“The season has been a dream season,” Richmond coach Kelli Matthes said. “My kids have poured their hearts and souls into everything that they’ve done, and it’s not the outcome that we wanted, but when you make a mistake that’s what happens. And it doesn’t just fall on that one stunt group that had an issue, there were tiny things in each round.
“I have 37 girls on this team, and they are a family. They have been working at this for a really long time, and I just wish for them that it could’ve happened.”
Monroe Jefferson (772.62) took third after placing fourth a year ago, while Comstock Park (767.34) placed fourth. It was the Panthers’ fourth top-four finish at the Final in the past five seasons.
PHOTOS: (Top) Pontiac Notre Dame Prep performs Saturday night on the way to earning a fourth straight Division 3 title. (Middle) Richmond finished second for the third straight season.
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