By Dean Holzwarth
Special to Second Half
GRAND RAPIDS – Four years, four MHSAA championships.
Not a bad way to remember your high school career in competitive cheer.
Michigan Center seniors Paula Stone, Paige Rochefort and Sierra Sharrer always will have those memories after the trio helped their team win an unprecedented fourth consecutive MHSAA Division 4 Final on Saturday at the DeltaPlex.
The Cardinals recorded a three-round score of 745.12 and hung on to edge runner-up Merrill (743.12) by a mere two points. Hudson (734.52) finished a distant third.
Stone, Rochefort and Sharrer have been on the varsity all four years and contributed to each title.
“It’s the best feeling in the world,” Stone said. “It’s like everything you’ve ever worked for paid off. It didn’t really hit me until I got off the mat after Round 3. It just hit me, and I was like, ‘Wow’, this is the last time I’ll ever take the mat. I wouldn’t want it any other way.”
Michigan Center claimed last year’s Final with only one senior. A group of six seniors mixed with talented juniors and sophomores to produce another banner campaign.
The Cardinals won nine consecutive meets to cap the season.
“I really wanted it for this group of seniors,” Michigan Center coach Jessica Trefry said. “Three of them have been on the other state championship teams, and they are a wonderful group of girls. I wanted this for them so badly.”
The fourth didn’t come without a few anxious moments.
Michigan Center built a sizable lead after two strong rounds. However, a bobble during its Round 3 routine put the outcome in doubt.
“They did their jobs in Rounds 1 and 2, but we faltered a little bit in Round 3,” Trefry said. “It made me nervous.”
Rochefort remained confident that the Cardinals would still prevail.
“I had faith in my team that we could clean it up at the end, and I was so glad that we still finished strong no matter what had happened,” she said. “We pulled it together, and we didn’t let it define us.”
Trefry said the team’s work ethic and determination factored into this year’s success.
“It’s different every single year, but this group of girls were incredibly hard workers and very persistent with improving,” she said. “They were not afraid to be challenged, and I told them leading up to today that if you just go out and do your job like you’ve been doing all season, then you will win. I knew we had what it took.”
Merrill coach Courtney Schiller, whose team was making its sixth trip to the Finals, was equally elated with her team’s finish – the highest in school history at the MHSAA championship competition.
The Vandals, who had the smallest team in Division 4 with only nine girls, placed fourth the past two years. They finally got over the hump and into the top two for the first time.
“We’ve never finished this high so we’re very excited about that, and we’re very excited about how close it was,” Schiller said. “We were two points from a state championship. We only have nine girls and we’re always one of the smallest teams here, so to see these girls excel the way they did today was thrilling.”
Despite competing with only five girls in Round 3, Merrill delivered the highest score of the afternoon. A 298.1 put a scare into Michigan Center.
“We struggled a little bit at Regionals last week and came in fourth against teams that came in third and fourth today,” Schiller said. “To see them come out of a tough position at Regionals and come back from that today just makes me extremely proud. We wanted to have our best three rounds today, and we did.”
PHOTOS: (Top) Michigan Center performs its Round 1 routine during Saturday’s Division 4 championship run. (Middle) Merrill, here during Round 2, posted its highest MHSAA Finals finish. (Click for action and team photos from Hockey Weekly Action Photos.)
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