After cheering through middle and high school, Gibraltar Carlson competitive cheer coach Christina Wilson started coaching the Marauders’ middle school team the season after she graduated from Carlson High in 2001. She took over the varsity team in 2007 – and has accomplished in a short time what many coaches hope for over decades.
Carlson has won three of the last four MHSAA Division 2 championships – also finishing runner-up in 2010 – and is ranked No. 1 in its division heading into District competition this weekend. The Marauders have had a strong program throughout the history of competitive cheer as an MHSAA sport – they won the Class B championship in 1995 under Pat Christiansen and finished runners-up three straight seasons after that – but are on a run unequaled over the last five seasons.
Bowling Green, Eastern Michigan and Oakland’s cheer teams now boast former Carlson athletes, and all of this success could be just the start – Wilson may have accomplished a lot early in her career, but she said she hopes to keep the Marauders rolling for years to come.
What kind of things did you learn from your high school coach that you still teach today?
As soon as I started coaching middle school – we also got a new coach at the varsity level as well, so we had new coaching throughout the program at that time – I took and got the resources from our former coach in ’95 (Pat Christiansen) and started using all her resources. Everything she implemented and used for her teams, I took and continue to use today
Her daughter (Tami) coached with her in ’95 when we won the state championship, and she recently came back in 2010 as one of our assistants. She brought back that mentality of ’95 of working hard … the harder the practices the more successful you’ll be … make practices count enough so on Saturdays you can be as prepared as you can be … and the importance of making of making good decisions, in practice and outside sports as well.
Your program had success previously. But what happened to take Gibraltar Carlson to the next level?
I started coaching middle school, and by the time I moved up to varsity all (my) rules and procedures, the kids were used to it and it was (the same) throughout the program. It was becoming a program-wide thing to become excellent. It wasn’t just team by team, and I think that helped. We hold our kids to really high standards, and we’re expected to reach our goals and expectations.
What is the one big thing your athletes take away after four years of being part of your program?
We have the mementos and the championship rings and those things. But I think it’s a sense of pride. It gives them a sense of self. They know they can have goals, and if they work hard they can achieve those goals. If they put their minds to something, it’s something they can grasp if they work hard. I think that whole mentality of working hard, pursuing goals and teamwork is instilled right from the get-go, and something they take with them when they leave the program.
How do you stay ahead of the competition?
It’s not easy. We go to several camps; there’s a champion cheerleading camp we go to every summer. We work with college teams too; they come and show us things they do and teach us things. We take some kids every once in a while to out-of-state clinics (Kentucky, Bowling Green, etc.). We really try a diversity of things to get the girls out there and experiencing things. The techniques and ideas, it’s all about seeing something and then adding that to imagination to come up with whatever knows what.
Why are your teams so consistent?
We hold them to high expectations. We have gymnastics classes that they regularly attend, and on their own they go to the gymnastics facility once or twice a week extra on top of that to stay on top of their skills stay among the best athletes in state. One thing we do every year is we create a huge goal board. What we do after we start competing, is every Monday we check off what we’ve completed on the goal board. It’s not just a mental aspect, but it’s visual. Every week focus on something we try to achieve.
What do you enjoy most about coaching?
I love working with the kids. They’re funny. Practice is something new every day; you never know what you’re going to get. It’s so much fun. (And) competing is fun. I like the aspect of competition, the intensity of it. That’s lots of fun too. Winning is fun.
This is the sport Gibraltar Carlson has become known for, the one in which it’s had the most success lately.
It’s starting to grow. People look at cheerleading like, “Oh, it’s cheerleading.” We are definitely gaining the respect of other coaches and other programs, other sports and teachers and the student body. The really cool thing is when people start to look at the sport and realize how physically demanding it is. It makes us feel good to hear when other coaches say they think maybe the cheerleaders might be some of the best athletes in this school.
PHOTO from last season's MHSAA Division 2 Final at the Grand Rapids DeltaPlex.
Denny White brought quite a bit to the Marysville and St. Clair communities.
In 1961, as a junior in high school, White was part of the first team to bring a football state title to Marysville.
Fifty years later, as an assistant coach, he played a vital role in bringing St. Clair its first MHSAA Finals title in baseball.
During the years in between, and decade after, White brought his knowledge of and passion for those sports to hundreds of student athletes.
But most recently, he brought the two communities together.
This past Friday night, the rival schools played for the Denny White Trophy, an award created to honor the late coach and connect the two communities where he was most revered.
“I’m so happy with all the support that has been around the project,” said Brady Beedon, a family friend who helped to create the trophy and was in the booth calling Friday night’s game for Get Stuck On Sports. “It’s the least we could’ve done for a man who helped so many athletes. His legacy deserves to be preserved.”
In a fitting tribute to White, who died Jan. 22 of this year following a long battle with cancer, the two teams played a hard-fought game at East China Stadium, with White’s alma mater Marysville coming away with a 25-20 victory.
Both teams featured players who had been coached by White at some point in one or both of the sports, as his time on the bench lasted through the fall of 2022.
That season, he coached the JV B football team at Marysville. Most recently before that, he had been the varsity baseball coach at St. Clair from 2015-21.
“Not much can unify rivals, but Coach White’s influence goes beyond that rivalry,” Marysville football coach Derrick Meier said at a press conference unveiling the trophy. “He’s affected thousands of local athletes. … It is awesome that someone had such an influence across the board with all local athletes (in multiple) sports. I contacted him my first year coaching varsity, and he was not willing to leave where he was at. I called him three subsequent years; he graciously declined. The last year he did accept, we added a JV B team, his wisdom and knowledge went well beyond just coaching on the field. We’re all lucky for his influence.
“Heroes get remembered. Coach White will be remembered.”
White was a 1963 graduate of Marysville, who then attended Ferris State and Central Michigan. His coaching journey did not begin in the area where he grew up, however, as he coached baseball and football at Newaygo High School before coming to St. Clair.
He spent 35 years in the Saints athletic program, coaching baseball and multiple levels of football.
Much of his time was spent as the pitching coach for St. Clair for coaches Richie Mallewitz and Bill McElreath. That included the 2011 season, when his pitching staff included current major leaguer Jacob Cronenworth, who now plays second base for the San Diego Padres.
Also on that staff were Joel Seddon, who was drafted twice – once out of high school and again after college – and would go on to be the closer at South Carolina; and Jared Tobey, who pitched at Wayne State and was drafted by the Detroit Tigers, playing four years in their minor league system.
While White coached nearly 1,000 baseball games in his career, he was involved with more than just high school sports. He also coached a 13-year-old Little League team to a state title and the semifinals of the Great Lakes Regional in 2015.
No matter the level, White poured all he had into coaching, and that included his final season on the sidelines at Marysville, just months prior to his passing.
“Every single kid that he touched with that team, you could just tell, gravitated toward him immediately,” said Travis Disser, who coached with White that final year at Marysville. “His lessons and his light-hearted humor are just something that you can’t replace, or ever hope to. I was lucky enough to learn pitching from Coach White when I was a younger kid, as well. He was the exact same Denny White as he was all those years ago, as he was last year during his battle with cancer. Coach White was a warrior in every sense of the term. His lessons, both on the field and off the field from him, are something that I’ll never, ever forget.”
The idea to create the trophy honoring White came about not long after his death, as Beedon worked with Meier, former St. Clair athletic director Denny Borse and St. Clair assistant football coach T.J. Schindler to create and design the trophy.
The final product is a two-tiered trophy topped with a pair White’s hats – one from St. Clair, the other from Marysville – that have been bronzed. It includes the years in which he won his state titles at his respective schools, and a passage about his life. There is also room to list the yearly winners, as it is planned to represent the rivalry and shared respect for White in the two communities for years to come.
“Whether it was Little League kids over the last 20 years, or some of the football players and baseball players that he coached over the decades that he coached, all of them when they get together have great stories and fondness for all the memories that (White and his fellow coaches) helped them create,” said Sandy Rutledge, the current St. Clair athletic director and a longtime friend and colleague of White. “I think it’s awesome that now as we play for this trophy every year, it will give our coaches a chance to kind of explain who Coach was. The next generation, maybe they didn’t even know him, will know that he is a legend, and he’ll always be remembered.”
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 [email protected] with story ideas for Genesee, Lapeer, St. Clair, Sanilac, Huron, Tuscola, Saginaw, Bay, Arenac, Midland and Gladwin counties.
PHOTOS (Top) From left: St. Clair’s Larry Wawryzniak, Liam Nesbitt and Peyton Ellis, Denny White’s wife Karen White, and Marysville’s Bryce Smith, Carter Saccucci and Caz Carty stand with the first-year traveling trophy celebrating Denny White’s coaching career. (Middle) White was a mainstay in the area’s sports community for more than six decades. (Below) The trophy celebrates his contributions to both schools and will list the winners of their annual football game. (Trophy photos courtesy of Brady Beedon. Headshot courtesy of the White family.)