There has been a trend in high school gymnastics over the past few seasons with girls opting to compete for their high schools rather than exclusively with their club teams.
Drawn by the opportunity to compete for a team rather than solely as an individual, their arrival has bolstered the talent level across the board and closed the gap between three-time defending champion Mitchell and the rest of the field.
“I think every team has their high-end kid, where as before you would have one or two teams with a high-end kid,” Kernels coach Audra Rew said. “Huron was having a great season, then didn’t even get to qualify as a team to state. It’s that close out there right now. I think it’s because every team is increasing its difficulty level and increasing their top kids and that’s really helping their scores.”
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The rise in talent level was on full display at both state qualifier meets and sets the stage for drama when the state meet takes place Friday and Saturday in Aberdeen.
“It’s been a long time since we’ve had a really good state meet,” O’Gorman coach Skye Bork said. “I would say probably the top five or six teams are going to hit 140. I haven’t seen that in my time.”
“It’s probably going to be one of the most fun meets that I’ve been to,” added Yankton coach Justin Olson. “Not only the team competition, because I think there’s at least five teams in the running for that top spot, but also in individual competition for the all-around title. There are seven or eight girls that might be on the run for the top spot.”
Here’s a look at some of the storylines surrounding this year’s six automatic qualifiers and gymnasts to watch:
Kernels still in search of perfection
In search of its fourth consecutive championship, Mitchell arrives at this year’s state meet in an unfamiliar position.
After claiming the 2014 title by the smallest margin in state history, the Kernels’ depth gave them a significant advantage in each of the last two seasons. This year, however, they have been pushed and in some instances, surpassed by the competition, most notably Watertown, which finished 1.675 points ahead of Mitchell at the ESD qualifier.
“We know it’s going to be tough to beat Watertown at state. We know that. It’s a fact,” Rew said. “If we, as a team, want to outscore everyone else, they have to be perfect. I need every kid from No. 1 to No. 5 on my team to literally do their best routine they’ve done in practice… That’s a lot to ask of high school athletes.”
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Gymnast to watch: Maria Krall, a sophomore, has stepped in admirably for Quinci Herll and Emily Prill. She finished third in the all around at the state qualifier meet with a score of 37.000.
Senior Josie Dierks, who placed fifth in the all around at the ESD qualifier, should also finish among the Top 10 at state.
“Mitchell, obviously, they’re still the team to beat,” Watertown coach Vicky Fisher said. “They’re coming in as defending state champions and have a very talented team.”
Watertown looking to reclaim throne
The aforementioned Arrows arrive at this year’s meet as the odds-on favorite to claim the team title.
With 12 girls on the team, Watertown’s season got off to a bit of a rocky start as the coaching staff worked to organize a lineup that maximized each girl’s talents. They have since found that formula and are on a roll entering the year’s final meet.
“Gymnastics is definitely an individual sport, but then it’s kind of finding each individual’s best event. That’s what we do,” Fisher explained. “It was a little trial and error with this team, with it being so big, but we finally figured out who fits good in what position.”
Gymnasts to watch: Described by her coach as a “compact, little piece of fire,” seventh-grader Myah Morris has quickly established herself as one of the top gymnasts in the state. She posted the top all-around score in Class AA at the ESD qualifier, finishing with a 38.325, highlighted by a 9.9000 on beam.
“The girls on the team, they call her the atomic bomb,” Fisher said. “She is short, but she’s a very talented athlete. We’ll continue to keep an eye on her for years to come.”
Eighth-grader Brooke Bollinger, who has been out-scoring Morris on floor exercise, enters the state meet looking to bounce back from a shaky performance at the state qualifier. Senior Allison Stadheim will look to medal on the bars and floor.
Upstart Gazelles ready to take a run at state title
Competing in front of its home crowd, Yankton entered the ESD qualifier with a goal: They wanted to break the school’s team scoring record – again.
The Gazelles set their mark and they hit it, posting a team score of 142.550. Not only was it a new record for the program, but it also rated as the third best in the state.
Yankton appears to be peaking at the right time, which has Olson optimistic ahead of the state meet.
“Confidence is running high for our gym,” he said. “The girls are ready… We have to try and remain consistent, then also try to push the envelope a little bit.”
Gymnasts to watch: Freshman Payton Steffensen, who finished fourth last year as an eighth-grader at O’Gorman, has led Yankton both in competition and at practice through her infectious work ethic.
“She loves gymnastics and that’s a big thing for her,” said Bork, who coached Steffensen last year. “She was able to work really hard and find skills that she was really good at and it helped her fall in love with gymnastics again. Switching schools is really hard and I’m impressed with the way that she’s been able to click with her new team.”
Olson also cited freshman Jaiden Boomsma, a consistent mid-30s scorer, and senior Haleigh Diede, who has been a steady performer for the Gazelles all season, as two others from his team that are looking to compete for a spot in the Top 10.
Stevens looking to take next step
In 2010, Rapid City Stevens’ gymnastics program was in danger of folding as the school district discussed shifting funds to sanction cheer and dance squads instead.
School officials ultimately decided against dropping gymnastics and in the years since, the Raiders have begun to ascend.
Following a runner-up finish in 2015 and a third-place finish last year, the Raiders arrive at this year’s meet poised to take the proverbial next step and make a serious push for their first state title since 2001.
“We’re excited because this is our ninth year that we’ve coached gymnastics and this is the first time that the Stevens team has accelerated to this level, so we’re pretty dang proud of it,” coach Pamela Junek said.
Gymnast to watch: Leading the way for the Raiders is senior Jordan Huneke, who joined RCS for her final season of eligibility after competing exclusively for her club team.
She claimed the all around title at the East-West meet with a score of 37.650, which was second only to Watertown’s Myah Morris for tops in Class AA.
“I’ve only seen her perform a couple of times, but she has beautiful gymnastics,” Rew said. “I think she’s going to be a strong all arounder.”
O’Gorman focused on bringing title to Sioux Falls
With a team score of 138.175 at the East-West qualifier, the Knights head to the state meet ranked fifth overall in Class AA, a similar position to the one they were in at this time last year.
Last year’s run culminated with a runner-up finish at state. As it looks to improve upon that mark last year, O’Gorman is focused on tightening up and refining its routines ahead of Friday’s team competition.
“In practice we put more emphasis and focus on team day,” Bork said. “On individual day, we allow them to do the skills they want to do in their routines. We spend more time working on team day and working those specific skills that I want to make sure get in for team day.”
Gymnasts to watch: Only a junior, Lizzie Miller finds herself in something of a unique position for the Knights.
“Lizzie is both mentally and physically strong. She is our anchor,” Bork said. “She knows she’s our anchor and she doesn’t let that get to her. Usually that is a hard spot to be in, especially for someone that isn’t a senior.”
Despite the pressures that come with her role on the team, Miller’s embraced it and has flourished. She 36.175 at the state qualifier and was the only gymnast to beat Huneke in an event, finishing ahead of her on beam.
Coming off a strong performance at the state qualifier, senior Callie DeWitt is also poised for a run at medalist honors.
“Callie is very strong and that helps her a lot,” Bork explained. “If there is a point in time when she does mess up, say, her bar routine. She is strong enough to be able to pull herself up out of that skill she didn’t necessarily connect right and finish it even though it’s going to be hard.”
Roosevelt hopes to make some noise on individual day
The Rough Riders’ ultimate goal this season was to qualify for the state tournament. They achieved that goal by the narrowest of margins at last week’s East-West qualifier.
“We knew we had to have the best meet of our season and we were able to do that,” coach Lori Warne said. “But had we not gotten third, we would’ve missed qualifying as a team by .025. That would’ve crushed my girls.”
With such a young team – Roosevelt has just three seniors on its state roster and they’re all event specialists – Warne understands that her team’s best years are still in front of it. With that in mind, she wants her gymnasts focused on improving upon their performance at the East-West meet as they build momentum towards next season.
“We’re ranked ninth out of nine teams. Our goal will be to perform to the best of our ability and beat the score that we had last week at the qualifier,” Warne said. “If we have a great meet and happen to beat a team or two, awesome. If we don’t, as long as we do as well as we can, that’s about all I can expect from the girls.”
Gymnasts to watch: The Riders boast event specialists, led by sophomore Jordyn Thoene who will be the team’s lone all around competitor Saturday.
“She tends to be our strongest competitor by a couple of points,” Warne said. “I look for her to probably place in the top 10 for bars, I would even venture to say if she hits her routine she might be in the top five.”
Also of note, senior Megan Haiar will look to build off the best meet of her career, while Sydney Cork will compete in vault, beam and floor, which is her strongest event.
Follow Brian Haenchen on Twitter at @Brian_Haenchen .