Friday's Valparaiso Regional is little more than a warmup for the gymnastics state finals.
For the third consecutive week, top-ranked Portage and No. 4 Valparaiso will face off for top honors.
The Vikings won the Duneland Athletic Conference title and last week's Chesterton Sectional. After a dual meet loss to Portage this season, the Vikings seem energized for a state-record 10th title.
Senior Morgan Algozine tries to regain the form that led her to the state all-around title a year ago. Her teammates seem to be gaining more confidence for a reversal of fortune from last year's state finals, where their four-year winning streak came to a surprising end.
The difference this season lies with the team's depth. Algozine fell twice on beam at last week's Chesterton Sectional, but the team appeared to hardly skip a beat. The Vikings posted their best score of the season, 113.95, to win their 10th consecutive crown. That score would have won last season's state meet by close to 1 1/2 points — and this team feels they can score higher.
"(Depth) is very important to have," Vikings senior Hannah Erwin said after finishing second in all-around last week. "When someone is backing you up on each event, you get more motivated and it keeps going."
While the Vikings seem to be kicking into a higher gear, I think the motivation to improve is buoyed by the fact the Indians haven't peaked either.
Portage coach Karen Barcelli continues to talk about trying to get the perfect meet from her team. She said at the DAC meet that her gymnasts might have some bloody hands, referring to tireless work to improve on bars.
Uneven bars has been the bugaboo this season for Portage, despite the fact they have a win over Valparaiso and the Indians posted a season-best 112.8 last week — a score also good enough to win last season's state crown.
Additions were made to bars routines last week, since Barcelli finally felt her team had the confidence to do the moves. Daughter Mackenzie Barcelli placed third on bars (9.5), but she was the lone Portage gymnast to score at least a 9.0.
A second straight trip to state, win or lose Friday night, will not be met with the same exuberance from a season ago. In that case, the Indians were making their first team state finals trip since winning the crown in 1975.
"The girls keep striving for that," coach Barcelli said. "We have to clean some things up. ... We're working to do the best. We just don't want to make it out, we want to win."
I still believe a second-place showing Friday stokes the fire for one last attempt at perfection — or at least a second state title for the program.