by JACKIE HOLLAND-DECKER
The tears told the story. For the second straight year, the Rockford varsity competitive cheer team had performed three solid, crowd-electrifying rounds, yet their season would end at regionals, not at the coveted state meet.
The team – which had its fans abuzz in the stands at Brighton High School Saturday after performing well against 11 other regional qualifiers – finished eight points behind Lake Orion, which captured the fourth and final qualifying spot for the state meet at the Delta Plex on Saturday. Last year Rockford missed qualifying by six points.
“We wanted them to have three solid rounds, and we hoped it would be enough,” said Coach Kathy Jo Resseguie, who pulled the girls into the locker room shortly before the results were announced to tell them the bad news. “They are winners in our eyes because they gave all they had until the end.”
“We rocked! We looked good,” added assistant coach Mary Hurt. “We definitely peaked when we needed to. We were headed in the right direction. I’m so proud of them.”
The Rams have only qualified for the state finals once in the last four years, but they have been close every time. As part of the most competitive league in the state, the OK Red, the Rams have fallen victim often to a system that allowed more teams on the east side of the state to qualify than on the west side. In three of the last four regionals, they have come head to head with five of the Top 10 teams in Division I, all from their league. Included in the mix have been Division I defending champion Grandville, East Kentwood, West Ottawa, Jenison and Hudsonville. Only two teams were allowed to advance until this year.
When the Rams qualified in 2006, they were the lone OK Red team to compete in the regional in Mount Pleasant and were able to advance to state with a first-place finish. The other league competitors had to fight for two spots in another regional that year, leaving some top-ranked teams sitting home on state competition day. The Rams, who have been ranked in the Top 10 or honorable mention almost every year for the past decade, finished sixth in the state in 2006.
In 2007, they placed fourth in the regional. Last year they were third. Their regional score of 784.668 was the sixth highest in the state in 2008; five teams that scored below them in other regionals moved on to the state final.
This year, the Michigan High School Athletic Association changed the qualifying program, adding a district tournament. Fourteen teams competed in the first-ever districts at Rockford on Feb. 21. The top six finishers were from the OK Red. Four advanced to the regional. Not advancing were Jenison, ranked eighth in the state, and Hudsonville, both of whom are consistently higher-scoring teams than many finishers at both Division I regionals Saturday.
Although the change has been beneficial, the system still does not allow the best to compete in the final competition.
“Since they changed the rules, they have opened up more opportunities for teams, but there are still flaws in the system,” said senior Andrea Decker, who has competed on varsity since her freshman year. “Some of the top teams don’t get to go. We’ve had great teams that have worked hard that haven’t had a chance to go.”
At Brighton, the Rams were in fifth place from start to finish. In round one, they scored 221.6 points, putting them eight points behind leader Grandville (229.5). Also ahead of them were West Ottawa (227.7), Lake Orion (226.7), and district winner East Kentwood (223.6). In retrospect, at the previous week’s district tournament in round one, Grandville had scored 236.2, East Kentwood had scored 233.7, West Ottawa had scored 233.2, and the Rams had scored 229.2, all performing basically the same routines they put on the floor Saturday. Those score discrepancies show the subjectivity of the sport.
“They worked hard all week and improved on the things the judges [at the district competition] asked them to do, but we had different judges here, and we didn’t know what they wanted because they’ve never seen us,” said Resseguie, named as one of four Regional Coaches of the Year.
In round two, the Rams had one of their best routines of the year, but their two-round score of 467.67 kept them in fifth place, three points behind East Kentwood. Going into round three, the Rockford coaches, athletes and fans knew the girls would have to “nail” all of their stunts and gymnastics moves to secure that spot. The girls answered the call, looking especially capable in their five extensions, a strength move no other team in the state does. Their final score of 781.57, however, put them behind Grandville (799.51), East Kentwood (793.04), West Ottawa (791.91), and Lake Orion (789.97).