By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
GRAND RAPIDS – Susan Wood has had more elite teams than most during 35 seasons as Rochester’s cheer coach, including 13 MHSAA champions and five more that won state championships from the coaches association before competitive cheer became an MHSAA-sponsored sport in 1994.
Admittedly, this season’s team wasn’t her most talented. But few if any performed as well under pressure as these Falcons – and that became crucial Friday as Rochester pursued its first Division 1 title since 2009, but found itself locked in the cheer version of sudden death overtime.
The Falcons led reigning champion Grandville by 24 hundredths of a point heading into Round 3. Neither team could afford the slightest error during their final routine. And, as if the scenario needed additional buildup, the two top contenders were scheduled to perform at the end of the rotation – Grandville seventh of eight teams and Rochester to finish the night.
Grandville had scored the top Round 3 in Michigan this season. But Rochester equaled that score at the DeltaPlex, posting a 322 to edge the Bulldogs by a point and a half in the round and finish with an overall 792.40-790.66 advantage to earn not only that first title in seven seasons, but also finish a run that saw the Falcons win all of their events in 2015-16.
“I don’t like to know the scores going into Round 3. I just know that my team has to do what we’ve done in the past and what we do in practice, and just put it on the mat,” Rochester senior Breonna Weaver said. “I knew we were ahead. I didn’t know how much. But I don’t like to know because I want to do what I can do regardless of where we stand.”
“When we get to a competition, we just focus on ourselves. We don’t care about any other team. We’re just so driven on doing exactly what we do at practice and living in the moment … and I just love this team for it.”
Rochester has five more MHSAA championships than any other team, although Breckenridge and Gibraltar Carlson are favored to make that margin four again during Saturday’s remaining competitions.
The Grandville/Rochester matchup was a throwback to last year – when the Bulldogs led by 26 hundredths of a point heading into Round 3 and won the title by a margin of 1.46 points. Combined, the last two seasons also have been a throwback to the beginnings of competitive cheer as an MHSAA sport – every Class A and then Division 1 championship from 1994-2009 was won by either Rochester or Grandville.
Only four schools total have won a championship in the largest-school division during the 23 seasons of the tournament. But those other three all had won at least once since Rochester’s most recent title.
“We’ve had some talented kids, but everyone’s getting more talented. And any little flaw and your hopes are washed away,” Wood said. “I never wanted to be a has been. I didn’t want anyone to think that because we weren’t winning, we were all done winning.
“This team was really unique. We lost 15 seniors last year, so this summer, wow, our skills were really rough. ... (But) we kept winning. Usually you have some bad days. But they worked really hard to improve their skills."
Wood went on to explain that her athletes have a “performance edge” that allows them to transfer what they practice to competition even under the most stressful situations – like Friday’s, in front of a crowd so loud her cheerleaders couldn’t hear each other on the mat, and with Grandville and eventual third-place Sterling Heights Stevenson sure to deliver strong Round 3 routines as well.
All three hit, but Rochester with just enough extra to finish the run.
“We just talked about going out there and having fun, and giving it all we’ve got,” said Grandville coach Julie Smith-Boyd, who also finished her 35th season. “We number our teams, so this is number 35. Next year it’s different. Different girls, a whole different scenario.
“They’re just so … gritty, clutch. I think the Round 2 was probably the best Round 2 we’ve ever done, I mean, in many, many years.”
Rochester posted a 237.90 in Round 1 to lead Grandville by two tenths of a point and East Kentwood by fourth tenths. Rochester also had the high score in Round 2 of 232.50 – a mere four hundredths of a point higher than Grandville’s.
The Falcons’ final score of 792.40 was the highest posted in any division this season. Sterling Heights Stevenson, which posted the second-highest Round 3 on Friday of 321.20, rode that score from fifth into third place and to a season-best overall score of 788.10.
As Grandville has its tradition of numbering teams, Rochester has a tradition of welcoming visitors to practice with a special salute. After improving from not even making the MHSAA Finals two seasons ago, this group certainly earned their future welcome and place in Falcons history.
“After seven years, we finally brought it home,” Rochester senior Gabby Leo said. “It’s an amazing feeling, because whenever I go back to visit our team, they’ll yell, “State champs in the house.” It’s just … chills.
“We remember those (past) girls. They’re like our idols.”
PHOTOS: (Top) Rochester competes during Friday’s Division 1 Final at the Grand Rapids DeltaPlex. (Middle) Grandville finishes a routine on the way to placing as runner-up.
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