By Pam Shebest
Special for Second Half
PAW PAW — When Madison Boven was in middle school, her world came crashing down.
Both of her parents were involved in drugs and Children’s Protective Services took Boven and her three sisters away, giving control to their great-grandmother.
They have lived with her the last six or seven years – and these last few, the Paw Paw senior has been embraced by another family as well.
“I felt very alone and didn’t know what to do, so I found cheer,” Boven said. “At first I was like, ‘OK, this is a new thing I can look forward to.’
“Everything was happening so dramatically with my parents gone. I grasped onto (competitive) cheer and I loved it. I had a team and a place to go to.”
Competitive cheer coach Stefanie Miller added: “Cheer took her from a dark place back into the light. It’s taught her how to come back from the darkness.”
Boven is working to get back to training with her teammates over the next month as she’s started this season on crutches. Competitive cheer practice began across the state Nov. 6, with the first meets able to take place Nov. 20.
She should return to the mat by the second week of December as the Redskins try to make it back to the MHSAA Lower Peninsula Division 3 Finals on March 3 in Grand Rapids. They finished seventh in Division 3 last season.
Expectations are high as they prepare. Paw Paw also finished second at its Regional and dominated its District last season. Mahadiah Blakely is back after earning an all-state honorable mention, while Joscelin Stewart, Ciarra DeLaRonde, Claudia Muessig, Mia Labelle and Claire Atkinson earned some level of all-region honors and Kaitlyn Ciot and Ashton Glenn added all-district recognition.
Miller has built a program that has made the MHSAA Finals the last seven seasons, placing as high as sixth in Division 3. Taking that trip to the DeltaPlex every March has become something of a tradition, just like the all-night start of the season for the Paw Paw cheer family she's helped foster.
Locked in and focused
Boven was with her teammates as they participated in their 24-hour lock-in at the school from 1 p.m Saturday to 1 p.m. Sunday.
Miller, who has coached the Redskins for nine years after nine at Battle Creek Central, started the lock-in seven or eight years ago.
“We have so much to get done and so little time,” she said. “Our first competition is in less than 30 days and it’s a (Wolverine) Conference meet as well.
“This 24 hours is all about getting all of our material taught without the disruption of ‘I have to take a test tomorrow’ or whatever. Sometimes we don’t get it all done, but we get 90 percent of it done, and that takes a load off myself and off them as well.”
The girls take sleeping bags, pillows and air mattresses and sleep on the mats in the gym.
“They become one with the mat,” the bubbly Miller laughed, “because this is our court.”
And the lock-in is just as key for bonding her team as it is to preparing the Redskins for competition.
“At lock-in is where we make our routines so we’re all involved. We don’t get any outside help, just our coach and our team,” Boven said. “It makes the rounds even more special because we make them.”
The girls also do team bonding through games and crafts.
“Last year, we made a board with a motivational quote on it,” Boven said. “I have each one plastered on my wall.”
None of the girls have gymnastics backgrounds, so Miller learned the basics so she can teach the team.
“We just have to work extra hard,” she said. “We have gone the last nine years without a tumbling coach. The majority of schools have a tumbling coach, someone who comes in or those kids go to a gym and get tumbling that way.
“Our kids, we tried that but it just didn’t work because it wasn’t for everyone. Not everyone can afford that.”
Miller also watches videos of the top high school performances because “If you want to be the best, you have to study the best,” she said.
Boven’s injury had nothing to do with cheer, but it is not the first time she has watched from the sidelines. Now, as then, she’s using the time positively and with her team in mind.
“I broke my thumb in January and sat out half a season,” she said. “It helped me a lot to watch my team. It helped me grow insight in how to be a leader whether I’m (performing) with the team or not.”
One team, one sound
This year, Paw Paw has 22 athletes on varsity, 16 returning, but no junior varsity team – although Miller hopes to have one next year.
With a maximum of 16 on the floor at one time, Miller will have substitutions to plug in when needed.
“It’s hard to run a team of just 16 when you’re using every single kid,” she said. “This is winter, and the flu runs rampant.
“We’ve had several years with what we call the ‘Paw Paw Crud’ that ran through here. We had kids sick all the time. It’s easier on the kids to be able to sub in and out rather than change the material.”
Miller’s enthusiasm shines though as she talks about her team, and that translates to complete animation during competition.
“When we’re performing, if we’re killing it, she dances,” Boven said. “If we’re not, she still lets us know we’re doing fine; she just doesn’t dance.
“So when she dances, you know you’re doing good.”
Miller works on the three sets of routines, with the girls having input into the stunts and words.
She said the team does not have a “wow factor” but uses a clean routine so judges have no points to deduct.
Round One is the essence of creativity, she said.
“You have two jumps that are required in that round, and they have to be the first two jumps and they are judged,” she said. “They have to be done in unison.
“You can do more but only the first two jumps are judged. Basically, it’s to create a pretty picture.”
Round Two is the compulsory round.
“The first 10 motions are exactly the same,” Miller said. “It’s called the 10-count precision drill.
“Everybody in the state of Michigan does the same exact time count. Skills are the difficulty factor.”
Round Three is where teams showcase jumps, stunts and tumbling.
This is a special season for Miller, whose daughter Mackenzie is a freshman. Miller gets emotional when talking about her.
“My heart smiles every day,” Miller said. “I’ve lived for this moment, to be able to coach her in the sport I love and to know that she, too, loves this.
“I love to watch her doing it. We get to share this.”
Cheer is actually a family affair for the Millers.
Daughter Paige is an eighth grader who cheers on the middle school team and son Joe, a seventh grader who plays football, basketball, baseball and runs track, is “becoming one of my biggest fans,” Miller said.
“He’ll say, ‘Mom, I really like your words this year’ or ‘Mom, I really like that stunt you’re doing,’ He’ll ask questions about it.
“He loves to watch his sisters. He was up in the stands last year while I was taping when they were in middle school and Joe was behind me with his friends yelling, ‘That’s my sister.’”
Mackenzie Miller said it is not a problem with her mother coaching the team.
“Sometimes it’s hard, but really it’s not,” she said. “She pushes me harder than she does anybody else, so I have to live up to her expectations.
“It’s not too hard because her expectations are achievable. (Her expectations) push me, and they’re good.”
Those four are not the only athletes in the family.
Miller’s husband, Paskell, coaches the Paw Paw junior varsity boys basketball team and is the competitive cheer team photographer.
Son Charles, a sophomore, plays football, basketball and runs track.
Miller has had a shepherding influence as well on Boven, who said her coach “also brings a mother figure, because when my parents were gone, she stepped in."
That is one reason Boven is so conflicted about starting this season on the sideline on crutches.
“That’s why sitting out hurts so bad, because cheer is the thing that saved me from my parents’ situation,” she said with a tear slowly rolling down her cheek. “Once I got injured, it was like ‘I’m losing it.’
“Then I realized I’m not losing anything; it’s just making me stronger. They really are my family. Without them, I wouldn’t be who I am now and I wouldn’t be as happy.”
Besides Boven, Miller has seven other seniors and no juniors on her cheer team.
Seniors are Mahadiah Blakley, Kaitlyn Ciot, Brittany Cunningham, Ciarra DeLaRonde, Magdalena Flores, Ashton Glenn and Alyssa VanDenBerg.
Sophomores are Claire Atkinson, Carolyn Cook, Isabelle Dalton, Kaitlyn Hamacher, Mia Labelle, Claudia Muessig and Joscelin Stewart.
Other freshmen are Kylie Chai, Peniel Daspan, Raelyn DeGroff, Jakelyn Vargas, Kate Wiitanen and Hailey York.
Pam Shebest served as a sportswriter at the Kalamazoo Gazette from 1985-2009 after 11 years part-time with the Gazette while teaching French and English at White Pigeon High School. She can be reached at email@example.com with story ideas for Calhoun, Kalamazoo and Van Buren counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Paw Paw’s competitive cheer team performs during last season’s MHSAA Finals at the Grand Rapids DeltaPlex. (Middle) From left: Paw Paw coach Stefanie Miller, senior Madison Boven, freshman Mackenzie Miller. (Below) Paw Paw finished seventh in Division 3 last season. (Action photos by Paskell Miller; head shots by Pam Shebest.