By Doug Donnelly
Special for Second Half
Jenica Sword would like nothing more than to finish her high school competitive cheer career with an MHSAA Finals championship.
If she does, she’ll probably have to defeat her grandmother.
“We have a friendly competition,” said the Addison senior. “But we definitely want to beat each other.”
Here’s the situation: Jenica competes in competitive cheer for Addison Community Schools, located just off US-127 only a few miles from the Ohio state line and in the heart of the Irish Hills area. Her mother, Jessica Sword, is the Panthers’ head coach and has been since Jenica was in kindergarten at Addison.
Jessica’s mother is Kelly Bailey, who has been the head coach of the Hudson competitive cheer team since Jessica was a high school senior there in the late 1990s.
Hudson’s not just any competitive cheer program. It’s one of the most successful in state history. In fact, Bailey has led Hudson to the Finals for 19 consecutive seasons, her team finishing runner-up in Class C-D in 2006 and in Division 4 in 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2017 before winning the title in 2018. The Tigers were back on the podium last year, finishing second behind champion Pewamo-Westphalia.
Hudson and Addison not only are both in Division 4, they are located just 10 miles apart and compete in the same MHSAA District and Regional. When the postseason begins next week, Hudson and Addison will be among the favorites at the Feb. 21 District at Vandercook Lake.
Needless to say, cheer has some deep family roots. Bailey was a sideline cheerleader in high school at Onsted, during the era before the MHSAA created competitive cheer as a sponsored tournament sport. Onsted won a statewide competition her senior year.
When her daughters were young, she got them into cheerleading.
“I cheered all the way through school,” said Sword. “I guess it goes back to Pop Warner football days. I was a cheerleader then. My mom became our coach when I was a senior in high school. As soon as I graduated, I coached middle school and the JV at Hudson. I was an assistant with my mom for seven years.
“Cheerleading is very ingrained in our family, that’s for sure.”
When Sword’s daughter started school at Addison, Sword got a teaching job at the school and was named the varsity head coach for the Panthers. One of her first objectives was to start a youth cheerleading program. Her daughter and six other members of the current Addison Panthers team were in kindergarten that year.
“They didn’t have a program at the time,” Sword said. “I began right away to implement lots of different things, like camps and performances. The girls would go out and cheer at halftime of basketball games. I wanted to build the program up from the bottom.”
While it was a work in progress then, Addison has put together a strong program. Two years ago – the year Hudson won Division 4 – the Panthers also made it to the Grand Rapids Delta Plex for the Finals, finishing sixth overall in their first-ever trip to the season’s final competition. Last February, Addison placed fifth in the Regional at Mason, just 14 points from qualifying for the Finals. Hudson was the Regional champ.
“The girls were extremely disappointed,” Sword said. “I had one of the older girls say to the team this year that she doesn’t want this year’s freshmen to ever experience that disappointment.
“These girls this year have really strong personalities, and my seniors are great leaders. They were very disappointed. A week after the season ended, they were ready to get back in there and start working.”
The Panthers have come out firing this winter, finishing first at their own invitational plus events hosted by Homer and Michigan Center. This week, Addison won the Cascades Conference championship. It was the school’s first-ever conference title in competitive cheer.
That was no easy task. To accomplish it, Addison had to dethrone Michigan Center, another traditional powerhouse in the sport.
“Michigan Center is a dynasty,” Sword said. “They’ve won every conference championship since 2006. To take that away from them was a big deal.”
The Panthers are an experienced group. Of 20 athletes on the current squad, 11 are juniors and seniors.
“They just work hard,” Sword said. “I tell them every day how talented they are, but hard work can sometimes beat talent. You’ve got to put the work in, too. This group gets it. Mentally, they come in every day and want to work hard. They want to lift and just get better. They are very focused. I can officially say this is the best group we’ve ever had at Addison.”
One of the secrets to this team’s success is the closeness among the athletes and their coach. Sword, now a professor at Adrian College, has been working with most of them since they were in grade school.
“It’s a huge part of the dynamic,” she said. “I think of these girls as my own. I’ve been a part of their lives growing up. I think they see me as a second mom as well.”
Another dynamic, of course, is the competition – Hudson.
“It can be hard,” Sword said of going up against her mother. “We don’t talk much during a meet when we compete against each other. There have been times where I want to talk to her about something but then it’s like, ‘Oh, wait, my mom is my competition.’
“She does give me some feedback. And, I always appreciate what she has to say. She knows her stuff.”
Having Jenica compete for Addison adds another dynamic to it all. The senior said she’s grown used to seeing her grandmother on the other side of the gym. No matter who the competition is, Jenica said, she and the rest of the Panthers are determined to finish strong.
“We’ve worked so hard for this. Everyone wants it,” she said. “We are all very close, like best friends. It’s much easier to lead your team when you are friends than if you are enemies.”
Doug Donnelly has served as a sports and news reporter and city editor over 25 years, writing for the Daily Chief-Union in Upper Sandusky, Ohio from 1992-1995, the Monroe Evening News from 1995-2012 and the Adrian Daily Telegram since 2013. He's also written a book on high school basketball in Monroe County and compiles record books for various schools in southeast Michigan. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for Jackson, Washtenaw, Hillsdale, Lenawee and Monroe counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Addison seniors Christina Bailey, Bree Lampe, Abigail Zacharias, Chloe Leonard, Jenica Sword, Christin Conley and Morgan Fletcher. (Middle) The Panthers on Tuesday locked up their first Cascades Conference championship. (Photos courtesy of the Addison competitive cheer program.)
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