By Dean Holzwarth
Special for Second Half
GRAND RAPIDS – Pontiac Notre Dame Prep competitive cheer coach Beth Campbell was being honest when she stated that she believed the program could possibly be in rebuilding mode this season.
As Saturday night came to a close, that prediction couldn’t have ended up farther from the truth.
Despite heavy graduation losses and a bevy of underclassmen, the Fighting Irish kept their MHSAA Finals streak intact. Top-ranked Notre Dame Prep won its fifth consecutive Division 3 championship at the DeltaPlex with a three-round total of 776.48.
The Irish slipped past runner-up Richmond, which tallied a 771.50 score.
“I had 10 freshmen and five sophomores, two who had never been on the mat, and graduated seven kids that were outstanding in our program,” Campbell said. “I thought at the beginning of the season it was going to be a rebuilding year.”
Instead of rebuilding, the Fighting Irish simply reloaded. They went unscathed throughout the season, failing to lose a competition.
“I never would have dreamed it, to be honest,” Campbell said. “I thought we were going to have a lot of work ahead of us, but these kids, who were my seniors, know how to lead and they taught the kids our culture from day one. It was a pretty smooth season.”
The success was sparked by the leadership of the team’s four seniors: McKenna Dooley, Tessa Woryk, Rachel Michel and Taylor Beaver.
“These seniors never doubted it, and they told me on day one that this was how it was going to end,” Campbell said. “And they kept their word.”
The quartet refused to be denied in their pursuit of another Finals crown in their final high school season. They were committed to helping mentor the younger girls.
“To be responsible for this group of girls and teaching them our team mentality, it feels amazing,” Woryk said.
Added Michel: “We lost a very talented group of seniors from last year and only had four seniors with 10 freshmen coming on the team, but they were amazing and they caught onto the team culture right away. They worked super hard, and this ended up as one of the best teams we’ve ever had, in my opinion.”
Dooley said there was a sense of pride in keeping the tradition of the program going.
“Thinking about the girls that started it, it’s amazing that we get to continue the legacy they set for us,” she said. “I’m so grateful to be a part of it, and Rounds 1 and 2 were the best we’ve done all season. We peaked at state, which is what we planned on.”
The Fighting Irish boasted high scores in both of the first two rounds to build a comfortable advantage over Richmond.
And although their third round wasn’t their best, it proved to be enough to solidify the victory.
“Round 3 has been our power round, and we have not lost that round by any less than five points this year,” Campbell said. “You could see a little inexperience in that round today with more bobbles than we normally do, but they are fighters and they were able to keep it in the air and do enough to give us that fifth state championship.”
Richmond, ranked No. 2, placed runner-up to Notre Dame Prep for the fourth straight year. The Blue Devils previously won back-to-back titles in 2012 and 2013.
“We are disappointed because you always want to win, but after what happened last year we had a lot to deal with,” Richmond coach Kelli Matthes said. “We had kids quit and we had kids who didn’t come back. The fact that they came out and won the third round and hit better than they have all year long, they were able to put that ghost away.”
Richmond, which had only one senior, finished with a flurry and produced the top score (318.0) in Round 3.
“I’m extremely proud of them, and they left it all on the mat and it showed,” Matthes said. “And the bottom line is, we might have the silver trophy, but they won the third round and that’s what they will take with them.”
PHOTOS: (Top) Pontiac Notre Dame Prep performs during Saturday's Division 3 Final. (Middle) Richmond cheerleaders elevate in unison during a routine.
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