By Dean Holzwarth
Special to Second Half
GRAND RAPIDS – Gibraltar Carlson senior Annie Hajec was in an unfamiliar place Saturday afternoon during the MHSAA Division 2 Final at the DeltaPlex.
Instead of helping her team compete for another championship, the four-year varsity performer was on crutches with her left ankle bandaged after tearing her Achilles tendon during Round 3 at last weekend’s Regional.
“It was definitely tough not being out there, but I knew they could do it,” Hajec said. “Every single one of those girls is so talented and so driven. It is the best team I’ve ever been on.”
The loss of a seasoned leader, however, didn’t derail the Marauders’ recent success.
Gibraltar Carlson used a dominating Round 2 effort to gain a sizable advantage and claim another MHSAA title – its third straight and fifth over the last six seasons.
The Marauders finished with a three-round total of 782.48 to end ahead of second-place Dearborn Divine Child (772.92) and third-place Mount Pleasant (762.08).
“Today was a wonderful, wonderful day,” Gibraltar Carlson coach Danielle Jokela said. “We’ve suffered a lot of setbacks this week with losing our four-year senior, who was in every round, to an injury. But they fought as hard as they could after losing at Regionals.
“We practiced Sunday through yesterday (Friday) with their whole heart, and so winning today was the sweetest victory that I’ve ever had.”
Hajec’s absence forced the Marauders to shuffle each round and throw different girls into the mix.
The changes were hardly noticeable, especially in Round 2, as the team took control with a high score of 230.48 and opened a five-point lead entering Round 3.
“We made some last-minute changes Friday,” Jokela said. “We took somebody out, and put someone else in, and it was on the line. It was heart that pulled them through because at this point, the skill was already there.”
Hajec was overwhelmed by her team’s Round 2 effort.
“That was the best that round has been all year, and I was so excited to watch it,” Hajec said. “I was jumping and screaming. I was so happy, and the team handled the pressure today very well.”
Gibraltar Carlson capped the afternoon with a spirited Round 3 and left little doubt in defending their title.
“It was a beautiful round, and I’ve never seen a group of girls fight so hard for something,” Jokela said. “We put somebody else new in that round and they decided that it wasn’t going to stop them from being state champions, because that’s what they deserved.”
While the Marauders have transformed into a perennial Division 2 powerhouse, Jokela said remaining a top contender hasn’t been easy.
“It’s real easy when you are second or third or not in the state finals at all to fight to be here, but to be in first place and consistently win is the hardest thing in the world,” she said. “It’s hard to stay on top when everyone is coming after you and you know it.”
It was an all too familiar finish for Divine Child, which won the Catholic High School League this winter.
The Falcons fell short of another MHSAA title and finished second to Gibraltar Carslon for the third straight year.
“My girls had a goal of just having three great rounds, and they just left it in the hands of the judges,” Divine Child coach Amber Genevich said. “Unfortunately, the cards didn’t fall the way we wanted them to today, and it was disappointing. But at the end of the day, I’m proud of my team and the hard work they put in all season and the obstacles they had to overcome.”
PHOTOS: (Top) Gibraltar Carlson competes during Saturday's Division 2 Final at Grand Rapids' DeltaPlex. (Middle) Dearborn Divine Child, also competing Saturday, finished runner-up this season. (Bottom) Carlson poses with its trophy on the DeltaPlex floor. (Photos by Hockey Weekly Action Photo.)
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