Paw Paw Cheer Prepping to Shine Again

By Pam Shebest
Special for

November 13, 2017

PAW PAW — When Madison Boven was in middle school, her world came crashing down.

Both of her parents were involved in drugs and Children’s Protective Services took Boven and her three sisters away, giving control to their great-grandmother.

They have lived with her the last six or seven years – and these last few, the Paw Paw senior has been embraced by another family as well. 

“I felt very alone and didn’t know what to do, so I found cheer,” Boven said. “At first I was like, ‘OK, this is a new thing I can look forward to.’

“Everything was happening so dramatically with my parents gone. I grasped onto (competitive) cheer and I loved it. I had a team and a place to go to.”

Competitive cheer coach Stefanie Miller added: “Cheer took her from a dark place back into the light. It’s taught her how to come back from the darkness.”

Boven is working to get back to training with her teammates over the next month as she’s started this season on crutches. Competitive cheer practice began across the state Nov. 6, with the first meets able to take place Nov. 20.

She should return to the mat by the second week of December as the Redskins try to make it back to the MHSAA Lower Peninsula Division 3 Finals on March 3 in Grand Rapids. They finished seventh in Division 3 last season.

Expectations are high as they prepare. Paw Paw also finished second at its Regional and dominated its District last season. Mahadiah Blakely is back after earning an all-state honorable mention, while Joscelin Stewart, Ciarra DeLaRonde, Claudia Muessig, Mia Labelle and Claire Atkinson earned some level of all-region honors and Kaitlyn Ciot and Ashton Glenn added all-district recognition. 

Miller has built a program that has made the MHSAA Finals the last seven seasons, placing as high as sixth in Division 3. Taking that trip to the DeltaPlex every March has become something of a tradition, just like the all-night start of the season for the Paw Paw cheer family she's helped foster. 

Locked in and focused

Boven was with her teammates as they participated in their 24-hour lock-in at the school from 1 p.m Saturday to 1 p.m. Sunday.

Miller, who has coached the Redskins for nine years after nine at Battle Creek Central, started the lock-in seven or eight years ago.

“We have so much to get done and so little time,” she said. “Our first competition is in less than 30 days and it’s a (Wolverine) Conference meet as well.

“This 24 hours is all about getting all of our material taught without the disruption of ‘I have to take a test tomorrow’ or whatever. Sometimes we don’t get it all done, but we get 90 percent of it done, and that takes a load off myself and off them as well.”

The girls take sleeping bags, pillows and air mattresses and sleep on the mats in the gym. 

“They become one with the mat,” the bubbly Miller laughed, “because this is our court.”

And the lock-in is just as key for bonding her team as it is to preparing the Redskins for competition.

“At lock-in is where we make our routines so we’re all involved. We don’t get any outside help, just our coach and our team,” Boven said. “It makes the rounds even more special because we make them.”

The girls also do team bonding through games and crafts.

“Last year, we made a board with a motivational quote on it,” Boven said. “I have each one plastered on my wall.”

None of the girls have gymnastics backgrounds, so Miller learned the basics so she can teach the team.

“We just have to work extra hard,” she said. “We have gone the last nine years without a tumbling coach. The majority of schools have a tumbling coach, someone who comes in or those kids go to a gym and get tumbling that way.

“Our kids, we tried that but it just didn’t work because it wasn’t for everyone. Not everyone can afford that.”

Miller also watches videos of the top high school performances because “If you want to be the best, you have to study the best,” she said.


Boven’s injury had nothing to do with cheer, but it is not the first time she has watched from the sidelines. Now, as then, she’s using the time positively and with her team in mind.

“I broke my thumb in January and sat out half a season,” she said. “It helped me a lot to watch my team. It helped me grow insight in how to be a leader whether I’m (performing) with the team or not.”

One team, one sound

This year, Paw Paw has 22 athletes on varsity, 16 returning, but no junior varsity team – although Miller hopes to have one next year.

With a maximum of 16 on the floor at one time, Miller will have substitutions to plug in when needed.

“It’s hard to run a team of just 16 when you’re using every single kid,” she said. “This is winter, and the flu runs rampant. 

“We’ve had several years with what we call the ‘Paw Paw Crud’ that ran through here. We had kids sick all the time. It’s easier on the kids to be able to sub in and out rather than change the material.”

Miller’s enthusiasm shines though as she talks about her team, and that translates to complete animation during competition.

“When we’re performing, if we’re killing it, she dances,” Boven said. “If we’re not, she still lets us know we’re doing fine; she just doesn’t dance.

“So when she dances, you know you’re doing good.”

Miller works on the three sets of routines, with the girls having input into the stunts and words.

She said the team does not have a “wow factor” but uses a clean routine so judges have no points to deduct.

Round One is the essence of creativity, she said.

“You have two jumps that are required in that round, and they have to be the first two jumps and they are judged,” she said. “They have to be done in unison.

“You can do more but only the first two jumps are judged. Basically, it’s to create a pretty picture.”

Round Two is the compulsory round.

“The first 10 motions are exactly the same,” Miller said. “It’s called the 10-count precision drill.

“Everybody in the state of Michigan does the same exact time count. Skills are the difficulty factor.”

Round Three is where teams showcase jumps, stunts and tumbling.

Family affair

This is a special season for Miller, whose daughter Mackenzie is a freshman. Miller gets emotional when talking about her.

“My heart smiles every day,” Miller said. “I’ve lived for this moment, to be able to coach her in the sport I love and to know that she, too, loves this.

“I love to watch her doing it. We get to share this.”

Cheer is actually a family affair for the Millers.

Daughter Paige is an eighth grader who cheers on the middle school team and son Joe, a seventh grader who plays football, basketball, baseball and runs track, is “becoming one of my biggest fans,” Miller said.

“He’ll say, ‘Mom, I really like your words this year’ or ‘Mom, I really like that stunt you’re doing,’ He’ll ask questions about it. 

“He loves to watch his sisters. He was up in the stands last year while I was taping when they were in middle school and Joe was behind me with his friends yelling, ‘That’s my sister.’”

Mackenzie Miller said it is not a problem with her mother coaching the team.

“Sometimes it’s hard, but really it’s not,” she said. “She pushes me harder than she does anybody else, so I have to live up to her expectations. 

“It’s not too hard because her expectations are achievable. (Her expectations) push me, and they’re good.”

Those four are not the only athletes in the family.

Miller’s husband, Paskell, coaches the Paw Paw junior varsity boys basketball team and is the competitive cheer team photographer.

Son Charles, a sophomore, plays football, basketball and runs track.

Miller has had a shepherding influence as well on Boven, who said her coach “also brings a mother figure, because when my parents were gone, she stepped in."

That is one reason Boven is so conflicted about starting this season on the sideline on crutches.

“That’s why sitting out hurts so bad, because cheer is the thing that saved me from my parents’ situation,” she said with a tear slowly rolling down her cheek. “Once I got injured, it was like ‘I’m losing it.’

“Then I realized I’m not losing anything; it’s just making me stronger. They really are my family. Without them, I wouldn’t be who I am now and I wouldn’t be as happy.”

Besides Boven, Miller has seven other seniors and no juniors on her cheer team.

Seniors are Mahadiah Blakley, Kaitlyn Ciot, Brittany Cunningham, Ciarra DeLaRonde, Magdalena Flores, Ashton Glenn and Alyssa VanDenBerg. 

Sophomores are Claire Atkinson, Carolyn Cook, Isabelle Dalton, Kaitlyn Hamacher, Mia Labelle, Claudia Muessig and Joscelin Stewart.

Other freshmen are Kylie Chai, Peniel Daspan, Raelyn DeGroff, Jakelyn Vargas, Kate Wiitanen and Hailey York.

Pam Shebest served as a sportswriter at the Kalamazoo Gazette from 1985-2009 after 11 years part-time with the Gazette while teaching French and English at White Pigeon High School. She can be reached at with story ideas for Calhoun, Kalamazoo and Van Buren counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Paw Paw’s competitive cheer team performs during last season’s MHSAA Finals at the Grand Rapids DeltaPlex. (Middle) From left: Paw Paw coach Stefanie Miller, senior Madison Boven, freshman Mackenzie Miller. (Below) Paw Paw finished seventh in Division 3 last season. (Action photos by Paskell Miller; head shots by Pam Shebest. 

Bragging Rights for Both as Multi-Sport Sage Twins Shine at Ford Field

By Keith Dunlap
Special for

March 10, 2023

SOUTHGATE – The question of “Which child is your favorite?” is impossible for any parent to answer, but Shawn Sage has an additional question that’s impossible to answer regarding his son Jackson and daughter Brooklyn.

Greater DetroitThat question is, “Who would win a wrestling match between the two?”

“They are both raising their hands right now smiling about it,” Shawn Sage said with a laugh during a phone conversation.

It’s a good-natured question anybody can pose to Shawn Sage, given his son and daughter are not only twins by birth, but in wrestling achievements as sophomores at Southgate Anderson.

Last weekend at Ford Field, Jackson Sage competed in his second Individual Finals, where he finished fourth in Division 2 in the 157-pound weight class.

It was an improvement from last year’s event, when he qualified as a freshman but didn’t place.

“I was more used to it,” Jackson Sage said. “Last year was a different experience being at Ford Field the first time.”

Brooklyn Sage qualified for the Individual Finals this season as well, where she finished sixth in the Girls Division 155-pound weight class.

The winter was busy for both, but especially for Brooklyn. In addition to competing in wrestling, she was also a member of the school’s competitive cheer team.

“I knew that it would be a commitment,” she said. “But I was up for it. I was at the school for about 14 hours a day, but it was worth it at the end.”

Jackson and Brooklyn are each three-sport athletes. Jackson is the quarterback on the football team in the fall and a member of the track team (he competes in 300 hurdles and two relays) in the spring, while Brooklyn plays softball.

But it’s wrestling where the two share their greatest bond athletically.

Jackson started getting involved in the sport when was around elementary school age, and Brooklyn would tag along to practices.

Along the way, she became intrigued enough to try wrestling herself.

“I liked being able to know that I could defend myself and take care of myself in different ways,” she said. “To be able to stand up for myself.”

Brooklyn said she stopped wrestling competitively around sixth grade because there weren’t opportunities for girls to compete only against each other, but that changed when a girls-only division was added to the MHSAA Tournament with the 2021-22 season.

With both able to compete in high school, at-home workouts intensified. The two regularly train against each other on a mat in their basement, where technique is honed and toughness is sharpened.

“She pushes me a lot,” Jackson said.

Both also learn from each other’s experiences.

“I feel like watching him made me more motivated to do it,” Brooklyn said. “He’s taught me a lot of technique that I wouldn’t have known from his past experiences and coach.”

Added Jackson: “I’ve learned from her matches.”

This week has actually presented a rarity for both in that they’ve had time off.

With wrestling ending and spring sports not officially opening practice until Monday, the two haven’t had practices and competitions.

That’ll change next week when they go their separate ways with Jackson to track practice and Brooklyn joining the softball squad, and they’ll focus on those sports for the rest of the school year.

But with two more years of eligibility left and all-state finishes in wrestling already, the sky is the limit for the next two years in that sport for both.

With that in mind, the questions to Dad about who would win a match are likely only getting started.

Keith DunlapKeith Dunlap has served in Detroit-area sports media for more than two decades, including as a sportswriter at the Oakland Press from 2001-16 primarily covering high school sports but also college and professional teams. His bylines also have appeared in USA Today, the Washington Post, the Detroit Free Press, the Houston Chronicle and the Boston Globe. He served as the administrator for the Oakland Activities Association’s website from 2017-2020. Contact him at with story ideas for Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties

PHOTO Southgate Anderson twins Brooklyn, left, and Jackson Sage both placed at this season’s Wrestling Individual Finals. (Photo courtesy of the Sage family.)