By Tom Kendra
Special for Second Half
GRAND RAPIDS – For four straight years, Richmond came up just short.
For four straight years, Richmond had to watch arch rival Pontiac Notre Dame Prep hoist the championship trophy and swallow the bittersweet pill of finishing No. 2.
That background is essential to understand the utter euphoria the Blue Devils and their followers experienced Saturday evening when Richmond finally broke through again as Division 3 champion at the Delta Plex.
“We just went through the roof,” said Richmond senior Kendal Valentine, when asked about her emotions when Notre Dame was announced as the runner-up this year, leaving the Blue Devils as champs.
“My first three years we were second place every year, which starts to become repetitive. I’ll never forget that feeling sitting there knowing you fell just a little bit short of the ultimate goal. I’m so glad I don’t have to feel that again.”
Richmond, which has battled back-and-forth with Notre Dame all winter (Notre Dame won the District, Richmond took the Regional), grabbed control of the Final in Round 1 and never relinquished that lead.
The Blue Devils posted the highest score of the meet in each of the three rounds, winning convincingly with a three-round total of 787.42, with Notre Dame second at 777.72. Monroe Jefferson placed third and Charlotte took fourth.
The exclamation point came in Round 3 as the Blue Devils score of 319.50 was four points better than any other team.
“We have a very difficult third round, and our focus was right where it needed to be,” said 11th-year Richmond coach Kelli Matthes. “Our goal today was not to win. Our goal was to do our best in our last shot.”
The title was especially sweet for Richmond’s seven seniors – Jordan Anthony, Kylie Hinolosa, Hannah Lopiccolo, Megan McCallister, Olivia McCarroll, Jade Wolfe and Kendal Valentine.
While Saturday marked the end of Notre Dame’s five-year championship streak, it did extend a different run of success.
The Fighting Irish have now finished either first or second for seven straight years – the same number of years that Beth Campbell has been the head coach.
“I am very proud of this team, because it’s a lot of pressure at the top and a lot of people would like to see you lose,” said Campbell, whose first team as head coach was runner-up in 2013 and she has never had a team finish lower than second. “I think our girls handled all of that well. We will be back.”
Richmond, champion of the Blue Water Area Conference, has now finished either first or second in Division 3 eight of the last nine years. The Blue Devils previously won titles in 2012 and 2013 and took second in 2011 and 2015 through 2018.
Richmond showed remarkable consistency throughout this season, with a Division 3-best average of 779.8 per competition.
Matthes believes her team was able to take the final step this year because of preparation and practice changes her and assistant coaches Melana Fenwick and Lauren Riggs made going into this season.
“We changed how we did things around here,” said Matthes. “We did a lot more mental preparation, and I really think that paid off.
“Without change there is no change, or the old saying is that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. I guess you could say we were just sick of finishing second.”
Paw Paw placed fifth, followed by Comstock Park, Howard City Tri-County and Alma.
PHOTOS: (Top) Richmond raises its championship trophy Saturday night at the Delta Plex. (Middle) A Richmond cheerleader is lifted by her teammates during a routine.
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