By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
The best parts of last season never really ended for the Sterling Heights Stevenson competitive cheer team.
And to look at it another way, this season’s fabulous run got its start during the closing weeks of last year’s march to a Division 1 runner-up finish.
With only one senior a year ago, Stevenson came in second to champion Rochester, after taking third at the MHSAA Finals in 2016 and seventh in 2015.
But taking that next step was only part of the motivation for the Titans – the MHSAA/Applebee’s statewide “Team of the Month” for January. Just as important was a commitment made two weeks before last season’s championship meet, when a group of leaders – including many who are now finishing four-year varsity careers – told the rest of their teammates they would all be coming back this winter, and they would pick right back up where they left off.
“We used that right from the start this season,” said coach Brianna Verdoodt, who is in her 13th season leading the program. “We’ve pushed just as hard as last season, but this year is cool. We can be super intense, but we have so many more opportunities to love on them too, which is what you go into coaching to do. This year is the most fun year of coaching I’ve had because of that.”
Stevenson enters Saturday’s District at Warren Mott with the top scores in Division 1 this season for every round – 238.3, 233.4 and 322.1, respectively – and overall at 792.2. The top-ranked Titans’ average score of 785.3 is nine points better than the second-highest in Division 1 and more than four points higher than any team in any division this winter.
And they owned January. First came a Division 1-2 and overall win at the Richmond Invitational, where they scored 10 more points than the reigning Division 3 runner-up Blue Devils. Stevenson bested the field at its Titan Invitational on Jan. 20, finishing three points ahead of current No. 3-ranked Rochester Adams in Division 1 and posting the highest score against an overall field that also included reigning Division 3 champ Pontiac Notre Dame Prep, Richmond and Division 2 No. 5 Southgate Anderson.
A week later, Stevenson won the Lake Orion Invitational, finishing 2.5 points better than runner-up Rochester in the Division 1 competition and posting the top score regardless of division against a field that again included Notre Dame Prep, plus reigning Division 2 champion Allen Park and runner-up Gibraltar Carlson.
But it was actually part of a second-place showing to start the season that added another rev to the Titans’ drive this winter. Stevenson finished second at its first competition, the Troy Invitational on Dec. 9, but Verdoodt posted her team’s three rounds on Facebook – and the Round 1 has more than 1 million views, tons of positive comments and shares that took the routine all over the world.
Verdoodt thinks another second-place finish has come right at the right time as well. Although the Titans clinched the Macomb Area Conference Red championship, they finished second to No. 7-ranked Warren Cousino in the final league competition last week.
The next day’s practice was the team’s best practice all season, Verdoodt said.
“It brought it back home for them – they haven’t won anything yet, nothing that matters,” Verdoodt said. “It was wonderful. It needed to happen, and I’d rather it happen now.”
Last year’s pep talk helped take the pressure off heading into the biggest meets because nearly the entire team would have another chance to compete together. This team of 22 athletes includes 10 seniors – and after having to press some directly into varsity action from junior high last winter, Verdoodt has been able to get more creative because of her team’s added strength and experience.
Lily Juncaj, Izzie Nitecki, Grace Broadworth and Carolina Poliss are all seniors who made the all-state first team last season, and total nine athletes from last year's team earned some level of all-state recognition.
The perspective will be different this time with so many seniors finishing their high school careers – and the opportunity to win the first cheer championship in school history surely will be a motivator in the three weeks to come.
“They just get it. They all knew what it felt like to take second place in the state, coming from a team that if you’d seen at the beginning of (last) season – Good Lord,” Verdoodt said. “They were so excited about that.
“But then they kinda realized, ‘Hey, we can actually do this.’”
Past Teams of the Month, 2017-18
December: Cadillac boys bowling - Report
November: Ottawa Lake Whiteford football - Report
October: Beaverton volleyball - Report
September: Shepherd girls golf - Report
PHOTO: (Top) The Sterling Heights Stevenson competitive cheer team has 22 athletes, including 10 seniors. (Photos courtesy of the Stevenson cheer program.)