By Dean Holzwarth
Special for Second Half
GRAND RAPIDS – The return of only two seniors and the addition of a new coach made some wonder if the Gibraltar Carlson competitive cheer team could keep its string of consecutive MHSAA Division 2 titles intact.
The Marauders put those questions to rest by delivering another sterling performance with a squad comprised of mostly underclassmen.
Gibraltar Carlson won its fifth straight MHSAA Finals on Saturday at The DeltaPlex with a three-round total of 784.88.
It prevailed over runner-up DeWitt (778.36), which edged third-place and four-time reigning runner-up Dearborn Divine Child (778.24) by 12 hundredths of a point.
“There was lot of pressure, especially this year because we only had two seniors,” senior Sheridan Skopczynski said. “You don’t want to be the seniors that lose it for everyone, and we had a streak going. We love the pressure and we had a lot of people to prove wrong this year. We pushed through every single day and we knew we could do it.”
The Marauders’ other senior, Kersten Gant, said it was vital to keep the tradition going despite losing several key seniors from a year ago.
“You never want to disappoint the seniors from before, and you always have a reputation to uphold,” she said.
“Everybody really counts on you every year, and the younger girls look up to you.”
First-year coach Aryn Ziesmer took over the reins of the perennial state powerhouse after previously coaching at Southgate Anderson.
“I came from the three-time Division 1 state champions, so I kind of knew going into how to get that out of them,” Ziesmer said. “We won Districts, we won Regionals and this was just another day on a bigger caliber. If you go in as the defending Regional champions it makes your confidence that much higher.”
The addition of a talented freshman group helped propel the Marauders. Eleven freshmen took the floor Saturday for the first time on the biggest stage.
In fact, only three girls had ever competed at the Finals previously.
“Everybody always says how do you do it with 11 freshmen, but they want it with everything they have in them,” Ziesmer said. “Our freshmen are the heart of this team.”
Skopczynski said it took time for the freshmen to become acclimated to a new environment.
“Those freshmen, it took them a month or so to get their confidence up, but once we got it going we were on fire,” she said. “They’re just great and such confident performers. I can’t wait to see what these next three years hold for them.”
Gant has been on the team since she was a freshman. She was overcome with emotion after realizing her senior year would end with another MHSAA Finals crown.
“Oh, it feels great,” Gant said. “This is my fourth title, and I’m so happy that I got to share it with all the freshmen and everyone else. I’m so proud of them.”
Gibraltar Carlson tallied the high score in Round 1 with a 235.2, while Allen Park (232.8) edged Divine Child (232.5) and was in second place.
Divine Child was superb in Round 2 and posted a score of 230.64 to close the gap heading into the final round.
Gibraltar Carlson led Divine Child by less than two points entering Round 3, but produced a high score of 319.8 to seal it.
“We have a more difficult Round 3, and we definitely don’t play it safe,” Ziesmer said “There is a lot of room for error, and the fact that they pulled it off was why we were rewarded with such a high score.”
DeWitt pulled off the second-highest score (778.36) in Round 3 to notch its first runner-up finish since 2007.
“Our Round 3 has kind of been our bread and butter all season long,” Panthers coach Candace Heskitt said. “The girls are most comfortable in Round 3, and when they get to do it, that’s their time to shine. They feel at home.”
DeWitt’s roster included only four seniors, but Heskitt said a number of Panthers have been cheering together for many years.
“There’s a core group that have been together for several years, and I think that brings a strength to the team that we have not always had,” she said. “These girls work so hard and they’ve worked hard as a group, which has made it that sweeter.
“Obviously, everybody here is chasing first place and a state title, but before we took the floor the one thing I said was, ‘I want you to walk off the floor feeling like you did your best and had an amazing day’, and that took priority. The girls did a great job.”
PHOTOS: (Top) Gibraltar Carlson performs its routine during Round 3 of Saturday's Division 2 Final. (Middle) DeWitt also competes in Round 3 on the way to finishing runner-up at the Grand Rapids DeltaPlex.
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