Meridian Grows with Seniors Into Contender

By Paul Costanzo
Special for MHSAA.com

February 12, 2019

Katie Blanchard knew she and her Sanford Meridian competitive cheer teammates had something special even before they placed fourth at the 2016 MHSAA Division 4 Final.

Now that the six freshmen who made up the bulk of that team are seniors, everyone else knows it, too.

“We’ve been in it since we were really, really young – as early as you could do cheer,” said Blanchard, who is one of those seniors. “We’ve all been, all the seniors anyway, we’ve all been together that long, and we knew we had something special. Because we’re all friends, too, we knew we would all stay in it.”

Blanchard and her classmates McKenna Burns, Aubrey Erskine, Tana Spangler, Becky O’Dell and Elizabeth Melchi have all stayed in it, and after leading Meridian to a program-best finish a year ago (second), they have the Mustangs among the highest-scoring teams in Division 4 as the postseason approaches.

Meridian put up a total score of 774.02 this past Saturday at the Cheer on the Lake competition in Houghton Lake. It’s the highest score for any Division 4 team this season by nearly 10 points, and Meridian’s highest by nearly 15. With the District competition scheduled for Saturday in Vassar, the Mustangs believe they’re peaking at the right time.

“We’re still getting better throughout the season, and I don’t think we’ve peaked yet,” Burns said. “Our team and our coaches know that, too. We still have goals that we set every week, every practice. We’re still working hard on perfecting our skills.”

Meridian has been improving its scores throughout the season, as – outside of a slight blip at Alma College Spiritfest – they have been trending upward. And even when it looked like scores had plateaued a bit, with 759.98, 724.82, 759.44 and 757.06 coming in consecutive meets from Jan. 19 through Feb. 5, the Mustangs took things to a new level at Houghton Lake.

“We’ve just been practicing for the last week like it’s our District tournament,” Meridian coach Val MacKenzie said. “They went out with a bunch of dedication and fire in their blood that they wanted to win. Our Round 3, everything was just rock solid. They came together and performed well, and that was the highest score we’ve had in Round 3, which is 317.5.”

MacKenzie said that one of the team’s slogans, and one that the Mustangs used between rounds even as they were rolling toward a state-best score, is “You’re better than that.” That theme of constantly improving was on display at the team’s next practice, as MacKenzie invited a cheer official this past Monday to critique the team as it went through its routine.

“It’s good having somebody come in and look at us and say, ‘You guys are there, there’s just some little tiny things you can do to make yourselves better,’” MacKenzie said. “After a while with the girls you’re coaching, sometimes you say things and it goes in one ear and out their other. But when somebody else says it, then it sinks in like, ‘Oh yeah, Coach did say that.’”

This group of 16 athletes – 14 who are back from last year’s Finals runner-up – doesn’t need much outside motivation, however, and hasn’t since March of 2018.

“Last year, after we won Districts and Regionals, it really hit us that we really had a chance,” Burns said. “We worked so hard, and to get so close – we were excited to get second, and we still got a trophy and were recognized. Second place is pretty good for our little school in the middle of nowhere, especially since we didn’t have any seniors. Now, we’ve worked this hard, we’re not going to let it fall off.”

Part of the motivation is knowing how close the competition is, and Meridian is very aware of that. While Saturday’s score is nearly 10 points clear of the division’s second-best, Pewamo-Westphalia owns the best season average in the division at 741.3, while Meridian is second at 739.5. 

While they’re paying attention, the Mustangs know they can only control their own routine, which is why Burns said the team is working on even the smallest things.

“That’s the hardest part, you can’t expect them to fall or can’t expect them to mess up,” she said. “You have to depend on yourselves and your own teammates. You’re not going to be able to control anything over the other team; you’re just able to control what you do.”

MacKenzie can count on her seniors to make sure the entire team gets that message, as they have a lot of experience in that leadership role. Since they were sophomores, those six have been the oldest competitors on the team.

“It was a lot of pressure, and our sophomore year we didn’t really do that well, in my opinion,” Blanchard said. “It was difficult, but we had enough prior experience to be good. The seniors that were on the team when we were freshmen, they really whipped us into shape. There were only three seniors when we were all freshmen, so we grew up fast.

“Throughout the years, you learn so many lessons. Sophomore year was a really tough year. Last year, we took second, and that was such a huge change. Each year, going to state, we’ve learned how to deal with the pressure and just really how to perform.”

Everything seems to be coming together at the right time for the Mustangs, and their coach is confident they’ll perform when needed.

“They’re just a phenomenally talented team,” MacKenzie said. “I don’t think I have to worry about them losing their momentum. They can almost reach out and touch it; it’s right there. But you have to keep your act together. You can’t think that you’ve won.”

The Mustangs have taken that to heart and are focused on finishing what they started years ago.

“That would just be absolutely amazing,” Burns said. “Especially for us seniors, we’ve been working so hard, and we just want to go out with a bang.”

Paul Costanzo served as a sportswriter at The Port Huron Times Herald from 2006-15, including three years as lead sportswriter, and prior to that as sports editor at the Hillsdale Daily News from 2005-06. He can be reached at paulcostanzo3@gmail.com with story ideas for Genesee, Lapeer, St. Clair, Sanilac, Huron, Tuscola, Saginaw, Bay, Arenac, Midland and Gladwin counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Sanford Meridian’s competitive cheer team takes to the mat during a meet this season. (Middle) The Mustangs have posted the highest overall score of this winter in Division 4. (Photos courtesy of the Sanford Meridian competitive cheer program.)

Bragging Rights for Both as Multi-Sport Sage Twins Shine at Ford Field

By Keith Dunlap
Special for MHSAA.com

March 10, 2023

SOUTHGATE – The question of “Which child is your favorite?” is impossible for any parent to answer, but Shawn Sage has an additional question that’s impossible to answer regarding his son Jackson and daughter Brooklyn.

Greater DetroitThat question is, “Who would win a wrestling match between the two?”

“They are both raising their hands right now smiling about it,” Shawn Sage said with a laugh during a phone conversation.

It’s a good-natured question anybody can pose to Shawn Sage, given his son and daughter are not only twins by birth, but in wrestling achievements as sophomores at Southgate Anderson.

Last weekend at Ford Field, Jackson Sage competed in his second Individual Finals, where he finished fourth in Division 2 in the 157-pound weight class.

It was an improvement from last year’s event, when he qualified as a freshman but didn’t place.

“I was more used to it,” Jackson Sage said. “Last year was a different experience being at Ford Field the first time.”

Brooklyn Sage qualified for the Individual Finals this season as well, where she finished sixth in the Girls Division 155-pound weight class.

The winter was busy for both, but especially for Brooklyn. In addition to competing in wrestling, she was also a member of the school’s competitive cheer team.

“I knew that it would be a commitment,” she said. “But I was up for it. I was at the school for about 14 hours a day, but it was worth it at the end.”

Jackson and Brooklyn are each three-sport athletes. Jackson is the quarterback on the football team in the fall and a member of the track team (he competes in 300 hurdles and two relays) in the spring, while Brooklyn plays softball.

But it’s wrestling where the two share their greatest bond athletically.

Jackson started getting involved in the sport when was around elementary school age, and Brooklyn would tag along to practices.

Along the way, she became intrigued enough to try wrestling herself.

“I liked being able to know that I could defend myself and take care of myself in different ways,” she said. “To be able to stand up for myself.”

Brooklyn said she stopped wrestling competitively around sixth grade because there weren’t opportunities for girls to compete only against each other, but that changed when a girls-only division was added to the MHSAA Tournament with the 2021-22 season.

With both able to compete in high school, at-home workouts intensified. The two regularly train against each other on a mat in their basement, where technique is honed and toughness is sharpened.

“She pushes me a lot,” Jackson said.

Both also learn from each other’s experiences.

“I feel like watching him made me more motivated to do it,” Brooklyn said. “He’s taught me a lot of technique that I wouldn’t have known from his past experiences and coach.”

Added Jackson: “I’ve learned from her matches.”

This week has actually presented a rarity for both in that they’ve had time off.

With wrestling ending and spring sports not officially opening practice until Monday, the two haven’t had practices and competitions.

That’ll change next week when they go their separate ways with Jackson to track practice and Brooklyn joining the softball squad, and they’ll focus on those sports for the rest of the school year.

But with two more years of eligibility left and all-state finishes in wrestling already, the sky is the limit for the next two years in that sport for both.

With that in mind, the questions to Dad about who would win a match are likely only getting started.

Keith DunlapKeith Dunlap has served in Detroit-area sports media for more than two decades, including as a sportswriter at the Oakland Press from 2001-16 primarily covering high school sports but also college and professional teams. His bylines also have appeared in USA Today, the Washington Post, the Detroit Free Press, the Houston Chronicle and the Boston Globe. He served as the administrator for the Oakland Activities Association’s website from 2017-2020. Contact him at keithdunlap78@gmail.com with story ideas for Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties

PHOTO Southgate Anderson twins Brooklyn, left, and Jackson Sage both placed at this season’s Wrestling Individual Finals. (Photo courtesy of the Sage family.)