By Tom Kendra
Special for Second Half
GRAND RAPIDS – For years, Pontiac Notre Dame Prep had Richmond’s number.
Richmond finished runners-up in Division 3 to the Fighting Irish for four straight seasons from 2015 to 2018, before finally breaking through with the school’s third competitive cheer Finals championship last year.
“We were fighting every year to get over that hump, and then we got over it and then the fear set in: Can we do it again?” said Kelly Matthes, who is in her 30th year of coaching cheerleading and 12th as head coach at Richmond.
The Blue Devils answered their coach’s question with a resounding “yes” on Saturday evening, leading from start to finish and capturing their second-consecutive Division 3 title at the Delta Plex with 784.28 points.
Notre Dame Prep (779.18) took runner-up for the second consecutive year, followed by Paw Paw (777.08) and Croswell-Lexington (774.46).
Richmond came out laser-focused, dominating the first two rounds and building a 3.2-point lead heading into Round 3.
Then things got interesting, at least for a moment. Richmond, which went second in the final round, was not nearly as sharp as in the first two rounds. The Blue Devils had a couple of wobbles, but held it together and finished their challenging open round routine in style.
“We had a small little issue in that final round, but we practice in case of that,” explained Matthes, who is assisted by Melana Szczesniak and Lauren Riggs. “Don’t expect it to be perfect, and prepare for something to go wrong. They didn’t stop or give up; they just kept going.”
Croswell-Lexington actually had the best score in Round 3, but Richmond’s fast start was far too much to overcome.
“We know we need to build a big lead at the beginning, just in case something goes wrong later on,” said senior Madison Daniel, whose team was champion of the Blue Water Area Conference and won 10 of its 11 competitions. “That was our mindset.”
Daniel was one of three returning senior all-staters for the Blue Devils, along with Emily Mikolasik and Jordan Valentine. Sophomore Makenna Parker was also first team all-state last year, and senior Nicole Logghe was second team.
The other seniors for Richmond were Julia Akerley, Jillian Maksymiuk, Anna Marshall, Madison McEwen, Olivia Poelker and Noelle Riggs.
Those seniors finished among the top two at the Finals all four years of their high school careers – runners-up as freshmen and sophomores and champions as juniors and seniors. Marshall said the turning point came when they stopped being obsessed with Notre Dame Prep, and instead concentrated on their own improvement.
“After 2017, we really focused on ourselves and had tunnel vision,” said Marshall. “That’s how we kept getting better, and today was our best.”
Next year could be a rebuilding year or a reloading year for Richmond, depending on your point of view. On one hand, the team is losing 10 seniors and has only two juniors in Samantha Bryant and Jenna Jaissle. On the other hand, the team also has 28 athletes on its roster.
“The way I look at it, I still have 18 kids returning,” said Matthes, who noted that most of the 10 seniors have been cheering together since they were children at the Richmond youth cheer camp. “These seniors wanted to leave a legacy, and they sure did that.”
Comstock Park place fifth, ahead of Onsted, Berrien Springs and Escanaba.
PHOTOS: (Top) Richmond hoists the Division 3 championship trophy for the second-straight season Saturday at the Delta Plex. (Middle) Pontiac Notre Dame Prep performs its routine on the way to a repeat runner-up finish.
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.)