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.
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