Richmond Reigns Again as Paw Paw Offers Another Titanic Challenge

By Tom Kendra
Special for

March 5, 2022

GRAND RAPIDS – Richmond was backed into a corner Saturday afternoon – but like a true champion, dug deep and fought its way out to continue its reign.

The Blue Devils needed a near-perfect final round to barely hold off a gutsy and impressive performance by Paw Paw at the Division 3 Final at the Delta Plex.

“We left our hearts out there on the mat in that final round,” said Richmond senior Sarah Mikolasik. “It’s bittersweet because it’s over, but it’s unreal what we did.”

Unreal is the perfect term to describe the high school cheer career for Mikolasik and the other seven seniors, who were a perfect 4-for-4 with Division 3 championships all four years.

However, for a period of time Saturday, it looked like the fourth title might slip away.

Richmond and Paw Paw entered the third and final round in a virtual tie, with the Blue Devils holding less than a 1-point lead (463.60 to 462.80).

Paw Paw was first to go out of the eight-school field in the final round, and to say the Red Wolves delivered would be the understatement of the day.

The Red Wolves, led by the senior duo of Paige Miller and Lexi Sunlin, absolutely nailed their final routine – much to the delight of the spectators who made the trip up from Southwest Michigan – putting them in position to win their first-ever cheer Finals title and bringing tears to the eyes of their veteran coach.

“I have never cried when one of my teams came off the mat – until today,” said 13th-year Paw Paw coach Stefanie Miller, who is also Paige’s mother. “Throughout that Round 3, the tears just welled up in my eyes. They went for it. I knew they won it.”

But Richmond had its chance.

At that point, all of the pressure in the world was on the three-time reigning champion to perform a very difficult routine, all while knowing that the slightest bobble or lean on a stunt would likely mean the end of that streak.

Paw Paw competitive cheerIt was against that backdrop that Richmond, representing a small town just north of Detroit, showed why it has emerged as one of the best competitive cheer programs in the state.

Even though they weren’t on the mat at the same time, the Blue Devils matched every skill and stunt of the Red Wolves, finishing with a third-round score of 317.40, slightly better than Paw Paw’s final round of 317.20.

Richmond ended up winning with a total of 781, while Paw Paw was second at 780 – nearly the same margin of victory as one year ago.

While the margin was the same, both teams improved their total score by almost 10 points, with Richmond winning 771.62-770.72 in 2021.

“I was speechless when they came off that mat for the last time, because I knew they had done everything that they possibly could,” said Richmond coach Kelli Matthes, who has won six titles to go with five runner-up finishes during her 14 years as the team’s coach.

“They are not supposed to be perfect; they are human. But they fight tooth-and-nail every day to get there.”

Matthes is assisted by Melana Szczesniak, Lauren Riggs and Jessica Hatcher.

Pontiac Notre Dame Prep placed third at 776.62, followed by Croswell-Lexington and Monroe Jefferson.

The title for Richmond means that all four team champions from 2021 repeated this year – Rochester Adams in D1, Allen Park in D2, Richmond in D3 and Hudson in D4.

Gracie Ellis, one of five returning senior all-staters for Richmond, said the abilities to be coachable and always striving to get better is the reason her school has won four championships in a row.

“Never when we correct people does anybody complain,” said Ellis, who was joined as a senior returning first-team all-stater by Makenna Parker, Hannah Jeroue, Savanna Krywy and Ava Moskwa. “They take it, and they work harder. That’s how you keep getting better.”

Other seniors for Richmond were Eryn Hart, Jenna Alexander and Mikolasik.

Click for full results.

PHOTOS (Top) Richmond competes during Saturday’s Division 3 Finals at Grand Rapids’ Delta Plex. (Middle) Paw Paw celebrates its second-straight runner-up finish. (Click for more from Hockey Weekly Action Photos.)

Team of the Month: Croswell-Lexington Competitive Cheer

By Geoff Kimmerly senior editor

April 14, 2023

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
Taylor Trillium Academy girls bowling - Report
Byron Center hockey - Report
Martin football - Report
Gladwin volleyball - Report
Negaunee girls tennis - Report