Rockford/Sparta Turns to Seniors, Large Contributing Cast to Complete 3-Peat

By Steve Vedder
Special for

March 8, 2024

GRAND RAPIDS – Maybe the simplest explanation for Rockford/Sparta's third straight MHSAA gymnastics team state championship is that the Rams survived a rollercoaster season.

Rockford/Sparta overcame everything from injuries, to extra-motivated opponents after winning back-to-back Finals titles, a less-than-favorable showing at a key time during the season's mid-February Canton Invitational and several other lesser bouts of adversity to narrowly capture Friday's championship at Grand Rapids Kenowa Hills. The Rams finished with 144 points to inch past runner-up Farmington United's 143.8 score.

Bluntly put, seventh-year coach Michelle Ankney admits there were fair questions whether her team would wind its way to a third-straight Finals title and sixth since 2015. But in the end, the adversity was shoved aside.

"Honestly, we have nine seniors so I thought maybe we could do it," she said. "But then I began having some doubts in the middle of the season."

But after a top-shelf showing at the Feb. 14 conference meet, Ankney began to reverse her thinking.

"We hit (scored) in all our events," she said. "We were successful enough that I kind of thought, 'Oh, okay, it's going to be all right for us.'"

Farmington United cheers on a teammate during floor exercise.Salem finished third Friday with a score of 143.35 while Hartland was fourth at 143.35 and Northville fifth at 140.9.

Rockford/Sparta is one of only five programs to win team gymnastics titles since 2008, and the three-peat was the Rams’ second over the last decade.

In the end, experience proved crucial. Of the nine seniors, seven have been on all three champions. Rockford/Sparta will have 11 gymnasts compete in Saturday's individual meet.

Still, Ankney's careful attitude was echoed by her team. Senior captain Addi Pitzer, who rallied from a torn ACL in January to become a Finals qualifier, said much had to come together for the Rams to complete another title run.

"We thought definitely we had a good shot. On the first day of practice, you could see the fire and drive," she said. "We wanted to be the best we can be. People pushed through the pain; that shows the dedication we have."

Pitzer, who has been a part of these last three champions, said the current club has talent, but it's worked as hard or harder than the other champs.

"We definitely have a lot of talent, but the great thing is how hard we work," she said. "You don't win three straight state championships without working hard. This team has a lot of drive."

Senior Anjaleah Barraza said much of the adversity was learning to deal with being chased by the rest of the state. Considering the program's success over the last three seasons, teams are definitely lining up to give the Rams their best shot, she said.

"I think we're a better team when we're faced with adversity," she said. "It brought us closer together. One of us can have a bad event, but we all come together. That's chemistry. We're aware of being a target, but we use that to motivate us to do better."

Ankney said much of the success had to do with depth. Sparked by an outstanding senior class, Ankney said determining a lineup was often a challenge – in a good way. For instance, the Rams went up to nine deep on the balance beam and easily had seven gymnasts for each of the other three events.

Rockford/Sparta posted the day's highest team scores on floor exercise (36.975) and vault (36.6). Senior Hailey Hill competed all-around and led with a 36.325.

"We had 11 girls compete today, which is the most I've ever had as coach. We've had to step up this year because I don't think we were heavy favorites," she said of early season predictions. "We had a couple injuries, including one that shook us up a little. But we came back together."

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PHOTOS (Top) Sophomore Elise Watkins competes on balance beam for Rockford/Sparta on Friday. (Middle) Farmington United cheers on a teammate during floor exercise. (Click for more photos from High School Sports Scene.)

Performance of the Week: North Farmington's Leah Hodge

March 14, 2024

Leah Hodge headshotLeah Hodge ♦ North Farmington
Junior ♦ Gymnastics

Hodge, coming off a dominating Division 1 Regional win the week before, finished the season with another memorable weekend helping Farmington United to a runner-up finish at Friday’s Team Final before clinching the Division 1 individual championship Saturday with an all-around score of 38.000.

A gymnast since she was 6 years old, Hodge scored a meet-high 37.950 all-around Friday as Farmington United finished second, just two tenths of a point off the lead, and her Saturday performance included a championship on uneven parallel bars (9.55), runner-up finish on vault (9.50), fourth place on balance beam (9.425) and sixth place on floor exercise (9.525) – despite her injuring an ankle midway through the meet. Farmington United is a cooperative program with athletes from North Farmington and Farmington high schools. 

@mhsaasports 🤸POW: Leah Hodge #gymnastics #individual #champion #letsgo #farmingtonunited #part1 #highschoolsports #tiktalk #interview #performanceoftheweek #mistudentaid #fyp #MHSAA ♬ original sound - MHSAA

@mhsaasports 🤸POW: Leah Hodge #tiktalk #questiontime #part2 #simonebiles #sourpatchkids #drake #olives #performanceoftheweek #mistudentaid #fyp #MHSAA ♬ original sound - MHSAA

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Past 2023-24 Honorees

March 8: Darius Marines, Detroit Catholic Central wrestling - Report
March 1:
Rylee Smith, Zeeland West bowling - Report
Feb. 22:
Caleb Lewandowski, Traverse City West skiing - Report
Feb. 15:
Jadin Mix, Onaway basketball - Report
Feb. 8:
Onalee Wallis, Cadillac skiing - Report
Feb. 1:
Abbey DeGraw, Rochester Hills Stoney Creek competitive cheer - Report
Jan. 25:
Ewan Todd, Riverview swimming - Report
Jan. 18:
Ashley Weller, Jackson Northwest basketball - Report
Jan. 11:
Michael Baldwin, Saginaw Arthur Hill wrestling - Report
Dec. 15:
Jena Fijolek, Fenton bowling - Report
Dec. 8:
Sophia Wagner, Escanaba gymnastics - Report
Dec. 1:
Isaiah Marshall, Southfield Arts & Technology football - Report
Nov. 24:
Sarah Bradley, Clarkston Everest Collegiate volleyball - Report
Nov. 17:
Kalieb Osborne, Waterford Mott football - Report
Nov. 10:
Tekalegn Vlasma, Muskegon Western Michigan Christian soccer - Report
Nov. 3:
Colton Kinnie, Birmingham Seaholm football - Report
Oct. 27:
Lauren Timpf, Macomb Lutheran North golf - Report
Oct. 20:
Alena Li, Okemos golf - Report
Oct. 13:
Seth Norder, Grand Haven cross country - Report
Oct. 5:
Paige Anderson, Muskegon Reeths-Puffer golf - Report
Sept. 29:
MacKenzie Bisballe, Lake City volleyball - Report
Sept. 22:
Jhace Massey, Gladwin football - Report
Sept. 15:
Kaylee Draper, Sturgis swimming - Report
Sept. 8:
Owen Jackson, Traverse City St. Francis tennis - Report
Sept. 1:
Rachel Forsyth, Ann Arbor Pioneer cross country - Report

PHOTO Farmington United's Leah Hodge competes during the floor exercise Saturday at Grand Rapids Kenowa Hills. (Click for more from High School Sports Scene.)