By Tom Kendra
Special for Second Half
GRAND RAPIDS – Back in January, it didn’t look like this would be the breakthrough year for Rochester Hills Stoney Creek competitive cheer.
But the Cougars hit their stride at just the right time, overcoming a second-place conference finish by winning MHSAA District and Regional titles, then capping off their dream run with a Division 1 Finals championship Friday at the Delta Plex.
“I have a lot of different emotions right now, but the best one is knowing that our hard work over the past nine months has paid off,” said Stoney Creek senior Mandy Lilla after the emotional win in front of more than 3,000 spectators.
Stoney Creek posted the highest score from the eight-team field in all three rounds, adding up to an impressive total of 792.72 and edging neighbor and Oakland Activities Association Red rival Rochester Adams (788.90). Grandville placed third at 787.18.
The title was the second for Stoney Creek, which also won Division 1 in 2010.
The Cougars have had a solid program ever since, with a fourth-place finish last winter, but were never able to get back to the top spot until Friday night.
Tricia Williams, in her 17th season as Stoney Creek’s coach, said the maturity of this year’s team enabled the Cougars to continually improve.
“I could see this team growing week after week,” said Williams, who is assisted by Angela Gaabo. “We had a wonderful group of seniors and captains. January was not our month, but those seniors made sure that everyone stayed positive and kept tightening things up.”
The Cougars showed they were ready for business at the District with a 793.78 score, the best District total in the state. They followed that up with a Regional win and then took control of the Finals starting in Round 1.
Leading by almost four points heading into Round 3, Stoney Creek delivered a near-flawless final round performance under pressure, excelling in coordination, vocals and floor mobility, while adding many skill points with a series of stunts and lifts. In the process, the Cougars denied Grandville and Rochester Adams, the final two teams to compete in Round 3, the chance for a comeback.
It marked the second straight year that Rochester Adams took second, after coming up just short last year to Sterling Heights Stevenson. In fact, the Highlanders finished first or second in every competition this season.
“We had an amazing season,” said Brooke Miller, in her fifth year as Adams’ coach. “Everyone is so good in our conference that it just makes us all better. We overcame a lot of things today, including an injury in Round 1, so I’m very proud of our finish.”
Stoney Creek and Adams, competitive rivals all year, shared a special moment on the mat after the trophy and medals presentations – with hugs and congratulations all around.
“So many of those girls are friends and they all work so hard, so that was great to see,” Miller said.
Williams had a brief moment alone with the championship trophy, before getting swarmed by her blue-and-gold clad team.
The Division 1 title was especially sweet for the Cougars’ seven seniors – Claire Heritage, Renee Kehren, Lilla, Sophia Lipuma, Lauren Orlando, Elizabeth Vacante and Olivia Zajac.
“It feels incredible because these girls are my second family,” said Heritage, one of four captains along with Lilla and juniors Sophia Seneker and Lindsey Zanchetta. “We went through the highs and the lows together, but we always stayed positive and supported each other.”
Brighton and Grand Blanc tied for fourth place, followed by 2018 champion Sterling Heights Stevenson, Utica Eisenhower and Hartland.
PHOTOS: (Top) Rochester Hills Stoney Creek scored the highest in all three rounds at Friday's Division 1 Finals. (Middle) Rochester Adams followed its rival with its second straight 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