Soaring Stevenson Building On Big Finish

February 13, 2018

By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor

The best parts of last season never really ended for the Sterling Heights Stevenson competitive cheer team.

And to look at it another way, this season’s fabulous run got its start during the closing weeks of last year’s march to a Division 1 runner-up finish.

With only one senior a year ago, Stevenson came in second to champion Rochester, after taking third at the MHSAA Finals in 2016 and seventh in 2015.

But taking that next step was only part of the motivation for the Titans – the MHSAA/Applebee’s statewide “Team of the Month” for January. Just as important was a commitment made two weeks before last season’s championship meet, when a group of leaders – including many who are now finishing four-year varsity careers – told the rest of their teammates they would all be coming back this winter, and they would pick right back up where they left off.

“We used that right from the start this season,” said coach Brianna Verdoodt, who is in her 13th season leading the program. “We’ve pushed just as hard as last season, but this year is cool. We can be super intense, but we have so many more opportunities to love on them too, which is what you go into coaching to do. This year is the most fun year of coaching I’ve had because of that.”

Stevenson enters Saturday’s District at Warren Mott with the top scores in Division 1 this season for every round – 238.3, 233.4 and 322.1, respectively – and overall at 792.2. The top-ranked Titans’ average score of 785.3 is nine points better than the second-highest in Division 1 and more than four points higher than any team in any division this winter.  

And they owned January. First came a Division 1-2 and overall win at the Richmond Invitational, where they scored 10 more points than the reigning Division 3 runner-up Blue Devils. Stevenson bested the field at its Titan Invitational on Jan. 20, finishing three points ahead of current No. 3-ranked Rochester Adams in Division 1 and posting the highest score against an overall field that also included reigning Division 3 champ Pontiac Notre Dame Prep, Richmond and Division 2 No. 5 Southgate Anderson.

A week later, Stevenson won the Lake Orion Invitational, finishing 2.5 points better than runner-up Rochester in the Division 1 competition and posting the top score regardless of division against a field that again included Notre Dame Prep, plus reigning Division 2 champion Allen Park and runner-up Gibraltar Carlson.

But it was actually part of a second-place showing to start the season that added another rev to the Titans’ drive this winter. Stevenson finished second at its first competition, the Troy Invitational on Dec. 9, but Verdoodt posted her team’s three rounds on Facebook – and the Round 1 has more than 1 million views, tons of positive comments and shares that took the routine all over the world.

Verdoodt thinks another second-place finish has come right at the right time as well. Although the Titans clinched the Macomb Area Conference Red championship, they finished second to No. 7-ranked Warren Cousino in the final league competition last week.

The next day’s practice was the team’s best practice all season, Verdoodt said.

“It brought it back home for them – they haven’t won anything yet, nothing that matters,” Verdoodt said. “It was wonderful. It needed to happen, and I’d rather it happen now.”

Last year’s pep talk helped take the pressure off heading into the biggest meets because nearly the entire team would have another chance to compete together. This team of 22 athletes includes 10 seniors – and after having to press some directly into varsity action from junior high last winter, Verdoodt has been able to get more creative because of her team’s added strength and experience.

Lily Juncaj, Izzie Nitecki, Grace Broadworth and Carolina Poliss are all seniors who made the all-state first team last season, and total nine athletes from last year's team earned some level of all-state recognition.

The perspective will be different this time with so many seniors finishing their high school careers – and the opportunity to win the first cheer championship in school history surely will be a motivator in the three weeks to come.

“They just get it. They all knew what it felt like to take second place in the state, coming from a team that if you’d seen at the beginning of (last) season – Good Lord,” Verdoodt said. “They were so excited about that.

“But then they kinda realized, ‘Hey, we can actually do this.’”

Past Teams of the Month, 2017-18
December: Cadillac boys bowling - Report
November: Ottawa Lake Whiteford football - Report
Beaverton volleyball - Report
Shepherd girls golf - Report

PHOTO: (Top) The Sterling Heights Stevenson competitive cheer team has 22 athletes, including 10 seniors. (Photos courtesy of the Stevenson cheer program.)

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