EAST LANSING – Richmond getting pushed at the Competitive Cheer Finals is nothing new.
The difference Friday was there was a new team applying the pressure at the Division 3 Final at Michigan State University’s Breslin Center.
Richmond led upset-minded Paw Paw by a miniscule three tenths of a point heading into the pivotal Round 3, but called on its experience and tradition to deliver a clutch performance and capture its third straight championship.
“There was not one ounce of doubt from anyone that we were going to do it,” said Richmond junior Gracie Ellis, one of two returning all-staters for the Blue Devils, along with fellow junior Makenna Parker.
Richmond took first at 771.62, followed by Paw Paw (770.72) and Pontiac Notre Dame Prep (767.42), which had finished either first or second for seven consecutive years.
While none of the Blue Devils had any doubt, it’s safe to say many outsiders may have wondered whether they were capable of a “three-peat.”
For one thing, Richmond lost 10 seniors off last year’s championship team and 13th-year coach Kelli Matthes fielded one of her youngest teams – and one of the youngest teams at the Finals in any division. Jenna Jaissle is the only senior on Richmond’s 23-athlete roster.
Then the Blue Devils placed a surprising fourth at Tuesday’s Regional competition.
“That kind of re-lit our fire and made us determined to go out with a bang,” said Jaissle.
Matthes said her team had another source of motivation which might have provided the extra .9 of a point it needed.
“On March 3, we lost our football coach after a five-year battle with cancer,” said Matthes, referring to 10-year Richmond head coach John Kocher. “We dealt with the COVID issue all season like everyone else, but maybe we had a little something extra.”
Richmond, which finished second to Notre Dame Prep for four consecutive years before breaking through with titles the past two seasons, looked dominant in Friday’s opening round – posting a 233.30 score, which was a full 2.4 points better than second-place Notre Dame and 2.9 points better than third-place Paw Paw.
But Paw Paw, which had never finished higher than third at a Finals, moved up to within a whisker of Richmond with a near-perfect Round 2 routine.
The Red Wolves then delivered an outstanding final round to put the pressure on Richmond, meaning one mistake or bobble by the two-time reigning champ could give Paw Paw its first-ever Finals title.
Going last in the eight-team field, the young Blue Devils showed the focus and grit of seasoned veterans to pull out the win. Richmond’s final-round score of 314.80 allowed it to hold off the challenge from Paw Paw (314.20 in the final round).
In addition to returning all-staters Ellis and Parker, Richmond’s strong, eight-person junior class also includes returning second-team all-stater Ava Moskwa. The Blue Devils also have eight sophomores and six freshmen.
After the competition, it looked like there were co-champions as Paw Paw coach Stefanie Miller, in her 12th year, proudly clutched the runner-up trophy.
“These ladies have worked tirelessly to get to this point,” said an emotional Miller, who coached both of her daughters this year – Mackenzie, a senior, and Paige, a junior.
“It’s incredible to share an experience like this with my daughters. To do something that the three of us all love so much and to make school history at the same time, that’s pretty special.”
PHOTOS: (Top) Richmond celebrates Friday's Division 3 championship won at the Breslin Center. (Middle) Paw Paw finished runner-up, its highest finish in program history. (Click for more from Hockey Weekly Action Photos.)