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.)
Jane Plaisted thinks it's one of those rare high school sporting events where scores and winners are secondary.
Instead, the focus of the recent Lake Michigan Competitive Cheer Officials Association meet is what the event could do for 75 seniors who competed in the sprawling 45-team meet at Byron Center.
All proceeds from the event went to fund scholarships for seniors who opted to write essays and then competed in the annual 22-year-old, three-division meet. The competition, which was completely run by LMCCOA judges, raised $21,000 to up its fundraising total to over $200,000 since the meet originated in 2001.
"It was a glorious day," said Plaisted, an LMCCOA member who has participated in 15 of the competitions. "The girls are happy, we're happy to give our time and it's such a positive day. We love being a part of it."
The event drew teams from as far away as St. Johns, DeWitt, Kalamazoo and Howard City Tri County. The chance to earn scholarship money was open to all 190 seniors who competed, and 75 chose to write an essay about "talking to their younger self and determining how competitive cheer has helped the athlete," said Stacy Smith, the president of the Michigan Cheer Judges Association. Smith said much of the event's dual goal is to promote competitive cheer while helping senior athletes wherever there is a financial need.
The meet started with just five teams and a few hundred dollars in scholarships in 2001, but has blossomed into one of the largest single-day high school sports fundraisers in the state. The meet, which has been held at Byron Center three times as well as schools such as Caledonia and East Kentwood, reached a peak of raising $25,000 a year ago.
What makes the day particularly special, Smith said, is that between 50 and 70 members of the LMCCOA annually show up to donate their time without knowing how their abilities will be put to use. In addition to judging the meet, members handle virtually every other aspect of the competition, from taking tickets, working the concession stand, filling water bottles, scoring, running a 50/50 raffle and whatever else organizers can find for them to do.
"Cheer athletes aren't always recognized a lot for their work, but it's a sport where (Michigan) colleges have gained notoriety at the national level and now offer scholarships," Smith said. "It's become a big deal in the state. Division I and II schools and NAIA schools all offer scholarships now. This can help."
Seniors who choose to participate write their essay prior to the meet, and then a committee of judges pore over the writings during the meet. Winners are announced following the competition. Twenty-one seniors were awarded scholarship money.
Smith said few parents probably grasp how much detail goes into running a long, grueling Saturday event.
"I'm not sure if people realize all the hands that have to make this happen," she said. "We've been doing it for 20 years, and for us it's like riding a bike. You never forget. It's just a wonderful day.
"I'm not surprised people want to be part of it and step up wherever they're needed."
Plaisted said judges sign up for jobs when they arrive at the meet. A judge can be officiating an event one minute and selling hot dogs moments later. The 'work wherever needed' attitude of judges, she said, is what makes the event a popular destination for participating schools.
"As officials, we emphasize young women participating," she said. "That old concept of the dumb blonde cheerleader doesn't exist anymore. This is an accomplished group of girls who we support. If you talk to any of (the judges), this meet is one of the most fun things we're going to do all season.
"It's become so popular. We gave away like $50 the first year, and since then we've grown from one long day to two sessions so we could increase the number of teams. Everyone goes home with a smile on their face, which for officials doesn't always happen."
Paw Paw cheer coach Stefanie Miller, whose team won the Division 3 portion of the meet, said coaches look forward to taking their teams to the meet.
"Absolutely because it's all about community," she said. "We talk to the girls about service and giving back. It's definitely a teachable moment, not only for the kids but for the adults, too, knowing what goes to the seniors."
"What I like best is that it promotes the athletes and all the work they put in. It's about giving back to them," added Brighton coach Christina Wilson, whose team won the Division 1 competition. "So many teams want to attend, and the coaches want the players to have a chance at a scholarship.
"I'm just in awe of seeing so many people there who are willing to give their energy for the kids."
One of Miller's favorite parts of the meet is watching fathers do a cheer "jump off" of their own tongue-in-cheek cheering skills while waiting for the final scores. She also loves volunteers making nearly 200 bows for participants to wear during the meet.
"Fathers do these cheerleader-type (routines) while there is a lull and it's just great," she said. "It's fun stuff like that that makes the day so special. It's all about giving back."
PHOTOS (Top) MHSAA official Jane Plaisted takes a photo with this year’s LMCCOA Division 1 scholarship winners. (Middle) Several officials contribute to making the meet an unforgettable experience. (Below) The LMCCOA also awarded scholarships to seniors from Division 2 and 3 schools. (Photos courtesy of Stacy Smith.)