By Dean Holzwarth
Special for Second Half
GRAND RAPIDS – As the Pontiac Notre Dame Prep competitive cheer team exited the mat after their final round, several of the girls raised two fingers up and pointed toward their cheering section.
The Fighting Irish refused to be coined one-hit wonders.
A year after capturing the program’s first MHSAA title, Notre Dame Prep repeated in Saturday’s Division 3 Competitive Cheer Final at The DeltaPlex.
“Our theme this year was ‘more than one’,” Fighting Irish coach Beth Campbell said. “It’s been a steady climb for us the last few years and we’re so proud of our kids.”
Notre Dame Prep led from start to finish, cementing back-to-back championships with the Final’s high scores in all three rounds and a 773.68 total.
The Fighting Irish held off a challenge from Richmond, which tallied a score of 767.70 and placed among the top two for the fourth time in five years.
Armada (761.90) was third, while perennial contender Comstock Park (759) suffered a fall in Round 3 and slipped to fourth.
“We knew Richmond and Comstock Park wanted to win and bring it back to their schools, but we knew we had the talent and we stayed focused on us,” said Campbell, whose team went undefeated throughout the season in Division 3.
“Anytime you are the defending state champions there’s a target on your back, and the year before we were underdogs. I feel like defending a state championship was 25 times harder. Keeping it was a real challenge, but I think my girls decided a long time ago that they were going to defend it.”
It’s believed that the Fighting Irish achieved a school milestone as well with their second straight title.
“I’m pretty sure we’re the first sport in school history to win state titles back-to-back, so that’s an honor right there,” senior Alysa Gonzalez said. “And we also have 16 team tucks in Round 3 and only one other school has that and they are not in our division. It’s just remarkable.”
Senior Olivia Riley never imagined ending her competitive cheer career with a pair of MHSAA Finals crowns.
“I never dreamed coming into high school that I would be winning two state championships, but here I am,” she said. “There was definitely a lot of pressure on us, but we worked hard all year and we knew it would work out in the end.”
Notre Dame Prep was fueled all season by an inner drive to succeed, but also stayed focused on the task at hand.
“This team has been consistent all year long,” Campbell said. “We don’t always have our perfect rounds, but we deliver in every single round. We stayed the course, and it was closer than we would’ve liked, but our team was so focused on what their goal was. They kept taking it one round at a time and didn’t get ahead of themselves.”
The Fighting Irish scored 233.50 in Round 1 to gain the early momentum. They carried it over into the final two rounds with scores of 226.48 and 313.70, respectively.
“We know every year if you win Round 1, you win a state championship, and so we knew we had to get our lead in Round 1,” Riley said.
Richmond was within two points of Notre Dame Prep in each round, but was unable to gain any ground.
Still, Blue Devils coach Kelli Matthes was thrilled with the effort by her team.
“We’re happy,” she said. “We wanted to come in today and have our best three rounds of the year. The kids have worked hard to clean up all the bits and pieces the last two weeks in Districts and Regionals.
“Are some of the kids disappointed? Well sure, everybody wants to win, but they’re going home with a trophy and a medal around their neck.”
Richmond finished outside of the top two a year ago with an inexperienced team, and this year’s squad also was youthful with only three seniors.
Its roster consisted of 12 sophomores and seven freshmen.
“Last year our team was extremely young and new, and this year we still had 19 of our 24 kids who were underclassmen,” Matthes said. “Our senior leadership has been fabulous, and our goal all year was to keep on plugging and that’s what we did.”
PHOTOS: (Top) Notre Dame Prep finishes a routine en route to repeating as Division 3 champion. (Middle) Runner-up Richmond competes Saturday 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
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November: Martin football - Report
October: Gladwin volleyball - Report
September: Negaunee girls tennis - Report