By Tom Kendra
Special for Second Half
GRAND RAPIDS – Pewamo-Westphalia senior Kelsey Russell wiped away her happy tears and summed up the greatest afternoon of her life.
“That is the best Round 3 we’ve ever had,” said Russell, a first-team all-state selection last year. “We nailed all of our stunts, and we needed every single point.”
Actually, every tenth of a point.
Pewamo-Westphalia sat in third place entering Saturday’s final round, but a final performance to remember helped the Pirates leap past Sanford Meridian and Hudson and capture a thrilling Division 4 Finals championship at the raucous Delta Plex.
The Pirates finished with a three-round total of 780.42, edging 2018 champion Hudson by less than four tenths of a point in one of the narrowest wins in MHSAA Finals history.
Sanford Meridian led entering the final round, but had to go first in Round 3 and struggled. At that point, both Hudson (in second place) and P-W (third) gained extra motivation, knowing a great final round could produce the championship.
P-W went sixth and delivered a season-best Round 3 score of 320.30, which produced a thunderous roar from the Pirates’ faithful, who sensed their team might have just won their ninth cheer Finals championship and first since 2010.
“We had an amazing final round,” said 12th-year coach Staci Myers, who also led P-W to titles in 2008 and 2010 along with five runner-up finishes. “We have two major flip-over stunts in that round that the girls hit perfectly each time. They came through at the right time.”
That just left Hudson, which was the final team to go in Round 3.
The Tigers, four-time Finals runners-up before last year’s win, made a run at the title themselves. Despite a roster with just three seniors, Hudson calmly put down a stellar Round 3, which had everyone on the edge of their seats awaiting the final scores.
“I feel great right now, honestly, because we did the best we could,” said Hudson coach Kelly Bailey, in her 22nd year, shortly after the final scores were announced.
On this day, the celebration belonged to the Pirates, who hugged and cried in each other’s arms after they learned of their razor-thin victory.
“I was speechless when they announced Hudson second and we were the only team left,” said P-W senior flyer Olivia Ferguson. “We were confident going into the final round. That’s always been our best round and we practiced it so much, we knew we just had to go out and nail it one more time.”
The Pirates, who do not compete in a conference but won District and Regional titles leading up to the Finals, produced a three-round 780.42, more than 16 points better than their previous season-best score of 764.16.
Russell and Ferguson are two of five seniors on the P-W roster, with the others being Esmeralda Gonzalez, Amalie Hilligsoe and Cierra Van Ells.
Pewamo was one of the early state powers in cheer, winning five championships during the 1990s and early 2000s under coach Sherry Fedewa, who is still an assistant coach.
This title was especially sweet for Myers, whose daughter, Halie Myers, is a freshman on the team.
“It’s been nine years since we’ve won state, and it was our ninth overall state championship,” said Myers, who is assisted by Amber Weber, Olivia Nurenberg and Fedewa. “We’ve always been like a family, but it’s extra special because I do have a daughter on the team.”
Sanford Meridian ended up finishing fourth, as Adrian Madison moved into third with the meet's third-best Round 3. Michigan Center placed fifth overall, followed by Breckenridge, Grand Rapids NorthPointe Christian and Munising.
PHOTOS: (Top) Pewamo-Westphalia earned its first MHSAA Finals cheer championship since 2010 on Saturday. (Middle) Hudson performs a routine on the way to finishing 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