When: noon, Saturday.
Defending champion: Valparaiso.
Favorite: Valparaiso. Darkhorse: Portage.
Gymnasts to watch: BOONE GROVE — Jessica Stahl, So. CHESTERTON — Brandi Tuzinski, Sr.; Jordan Kearby, So.; Taylor Rodriguez, So. CROWN POINT — Natalie Groff, Sr.; Hannah Best, So. HOBART — Morgan Gospadarek, So. LAKE CENTRAL — Megan Misirly, So.; Emma Weissbeck, So. LaPORTE — Kylee Harlow, Sr.; Marissa Hill, Sr.; Melanie Smith, Sr.; Sarah Zyzmuntowski, Fr. Melanie Smith. LOWELL — Sam Hammer, Sr.; Melena Hernandez, Sr.; Erin Brown, Fr. MERRILLVILLE — Kristina Goodman, Sr.; Taylor Woods, Sr.; Heather Osorio, Fr. MICHIGAN CITY — Natalie Smith, Sr.; Ashley Koza, Jr. MORGAN TWP. — Kylee Maxwell, So. PORTAGE — Danielle Solis, Sr.; Madison Kurtz, Jr.; Delaney Barcelli, So. VALPARAISO — Rushelle Miller, Jr.; Hanna Wilson, Jr.; Lia Milroy, So.
Fast facts: This sectional features six of the top 10 schools in the state, including No. 1 Valparaiso. … The Vikings have won 10 straight sectional titles. … Valparaiso ranks third in state history with 21 sectional titles all-time. … Boone Grove’s Jessica Stahl and Morgan Twp.’s Kylee Maxwell are competing as individuals.
MERRILLVILLE | Years of hard work and patience are finally paying off for Heather Osorio and the Merrillville gymnastics team.
Osorio, a freshman, guided the Pirates to a third-place finish at the Duneland Athletic Conference meet on Saturday at Crown Point. Merrillville’s 108.125 was just more than a half point behind second-place Portage and Osorio finished fourth in the all-around.
“It was a great experience knowing that I’m up there with other girls who are really, really good,” Osorio said. “It feels pretty amazing.”
The Pirates have known of Osorio’s talent for several years, biding their time until she could eventually join the high school level.
“She’s been with us since she was a little girl. She came through the Merrillville gymnastics club,” coach Diane Roberts said. “We’ve known, from a very early age, that when she hit her freshman year, she would tremendously impact our scoring potential and the whole workings of our team.”
Osorio was Merrillville’s highest finisher at the DAC meet and had top-five scores on the beam and bars. Despite — or perhaps, in addition to — the high expectations for the freshman, there has been steady improvement throughout the season, and she is reaching her potential as the Pirates prepare for this Saturday’s sectional at Chesterton.
“I’ve done a lot better since the beginning, the first meet,” Osorio said. “I’ve worked harder; I’ve improved a lot from our first meet.”
A successful freshman season from Osorio means a lot to the Merrillville program, but Roberts said Osorio is still constantly looking for ways to improve her scores and take down more opponents.
“If you ask her, she will not be satisfied with anything she did,” the coach said. “But yet the scores are indicating that the judges appreciate her fine gymnastics. She’ll never be satisfied. She asked us how she could get a 10, and until she gets a 10, she’s not going to be satisfied. She asked us a ton of questions before we ever even left the gym. She’s always interested in knowing the competition so she can set herself up to win.”
Both Roberts and Osorio were glad the freshman was able to experience the DAC meet — with many teams, competitors and fans — before participating in her first IHSAA postseason. Osorio hopes to take that experience and help the darkhorse Pirates win their first sectional title since 1992.
“I think (the DAC meet was) really important so I can get ready for Saturday, for sectionals, to know how it feels and how it’s going to feel,” Osorio said. “To see what all the girls have and what they can do and try to do better.”
Regardless of the sectional outcome, Roberts is thrilled with the success of her super freshman, and knows the best is yet to come from Osorio.
“It was not a surprise the she was talented, but what is a big surprise is how she handles pressure,” Roberts said. “She handles pressure like a senior. She’s extremely competitive, extremely focused and has an uncanny ability to narrow in on what needs to be done.”
CROWN POINT | Valparaiso looked Saturday like a team that has spent the entire season atop the state gymnastics poll.
The Vikings won their third consecutive Duneland Athletic Conference meet title with a 110.775.
Times No. 1 Valparaiso was led by sophomore Lia Milroy, who finished third in all-around (36.9). Teammate Rushelle Miller won bars (9.325). Hanna Wilson was fifth in all-around (36.425).
“We won the meet, so, needless to say, that's awesome,” Valpo coach Lorie Cook said. “It's a very difficult meet. We have some of the best teams in the state here and competition is very tough.
“I'm thrilled that we won, excited about it. We have some things to work on to get ready for next week. Hopefully, we'll be a bit more polished.”
Times No. 3 Portage was second with 108.7. Danielle Solis won vault (9.75) and beam (9.425) for Portage, but she suffered an uncharacteristic fall during her floor exercise and finished second in all-around (37.375).
“I think we pretty much have all the things in there that we need to get in there,” Portage coach Karen Barcelli said. “But we counted three falls today, so we can do a whole lot better than that.”
Times No. 2 Merrillville was third (108.125). Merrillville freshman Heather Osorio was fourth in all-around (36.750).
Chesterton senior Brandi Tuzinski finished first in all-around (37.425), even though she didn't win on a single apparatus. The Trojans placed fifth (106.2).
“I'm happy with the scores and how things worked out. I did feel kind of off (Saturday),” she said. “After the morning session, I thought, ‘I don't know about this.’ But I had a great team behind me who kept my nerves down. They had a lot to do with it. They had my back the whole meet, which made me able to come back from that (doubt).”
Michigan City was fourth (106.55). Host Crown Point was sixth (102.65). Bulldogs senior Natalie Groff was sixth in all-around(36.425.
Heading into next Saturday's Chesterton Sectional meet, the Vikings are hoping to reach the 111- to 112-point plateau, possibly adding new skills to their routines.
“It’s a difficult time of the year to do that, but we hope our girls will have the mental fortitude to add new skills,” Cook said. “We believe in the kids and if they are ready with new skills we are going to put them in.”
When: 11 a.m. Saturday.
Where: Crown Point.
Defending champion: Valparaiso.
Favorite: Valparaiso. Darkhorse: Merrillville.
Gymnasts to watch: CHESTERTON — Brandi Tuzinski, Sr.; Jordan Kearby, So. CROWN POINT — Natalie Groff, Sr.; Hannah Best, So. LAKE CENTRAL — Andi Wartman, Jr.; Amaris Gallegos, So.; Megan Misirly, So.; Emma Weissbeck, So.; Alyssa Klapowski, Fr. LaPORTE — Kylee Harlow, Sr.; Marissa Hill, Sr.; Melanie Smith, Sr.; Sarah Zyzmuntowski, Fr. MERRILLVILLE — Kristina Goodman, Sr.; Taylor Woods, Sr.; Heather Osorio, Fr. MICHIGAN CITY — Natalie Smith, Sr.; Shelby Ford, Jr.; Adrienne Fuller, Jr.; Ashley Koza, Jr.. PORTAGE — Danielle Solis, Sr.; Madison Kurtz, Jr. VALPARAISO — Rushelle Miller, Jr.; Lia Milroy, So.
Fast fact: The meet features six of the top nine schools in the state, including No. 1 Valparaiso ... The Vikings went undefeated during the regular season and are hoping to win their third straight DAC meet.
PORTAGE | Danielle Solis isn’t quite ready to start a retrospective on a gymnastics career that started when she was just six years old.
A senior at Portage, Solis is preparing to lead the defending state champion Indians on another deep run in the IHSAA tournament. She plans to savor the moment of every event in every meet.
“Senior year has been really good,” Solis said. “It’s kind of bittersweet because I’ve been doing gymnastics since I was so young, but I’m just trying to enjoy every competition that I have left.”
Times No. 3 Portage will next compete in the Duneland Athletic Conference meet on Saturday at Crown Point. While two-time defending champion Valparaiso is the favorite, Indians coach Karen Barcelli knows anything can happen as Portage, Merrillville and Michigan City all look to play spoiler.
“The DAC — the meet itself — is kind of up in the air as to who might win the meet,” Barcelli said. “It’s pretty important. I think that the second-place finish is probably the most important in the DAC this year because of how the season has gone. We’re just looking to be solid and we’re obviously going to try to win the meet.”
Heading into the DAC meet and the IHSAA postseason, Barcelli will look to Solis — and junior Madison Kurtz — to set an example for the relatively young Portage team.
“I always look to her for leadership. She and Madison both have led the way,” Barcelli said. “We’ve got a lot of less experienced gymnasts who are kind of rounding out our roster, but Danielle and Madison both take a lot on themselves. They both know they have a lot riding on their shoulders, but they don’t let that show very often.”
Solis had arguably the best meet of her career on Portage’s senior night against rival Valparaiso, when she tied her own school record with a 9.825 on the vault and then set a new program record with a 9.85 in the floor routine. Solis took first all-around (37.975) in that meet and the Indians scored a season-high 109.825 as a team.
“I just went in there kind of doing it for myself and really enjoying my senior night,” Solis said. “I had all my family there to support me, so that was really nice. There was just a really good vibe in the gym and I was just going off of it and enjoying it.”
The performance didn’t surprise Barcelli.
“I knew she was going to do it this year,” the coach said. “I’ve actually told her she could probably break the all-around record. I told her that; I don’t know if she really believed it, but I know she could. Her floor routine was almost flawless on senior night.”
With her senior season rapidly winding down, Solis is hoping to have more career nights and lead the Indians back to the state championship meet.
“Honestly, it just (recently) came to my mind that the season is almost over and finally we’re going into postseason,” Solis said. “I feel like it’s been so long. I can’t wait for it.
"I’m really preparing mentally for it because I don’t want the season to end because it will be my last time doing gymnastics. I’ve just really been trying to buckle down on everything and so that I can leave gymnastics on a good note.”
VALPARAISO | The Valparaiso gymnastics team completed its regular season Thursday with an 111.625-107.55 Duneland Athletic Conference dual win over Merrillville.
Sophomore Lia Milroy won the all-around (37.675) for Valparaiso with first-place finishes on the bars (9.5) and balance beam (9.575). Emily Lynch won the vault (9.3), and Rushelle Miller took first in the floor exercise (9.5) for the Vikings, while Merrillville’s Heather Osorio finished second all-around (9.350).
“It finishes our regular season undefeated, and undefeated in the conference,” Valparaiso coach Lorie Cook said. “We have the best conference in the state, so that’s a huge source of pride for us. We knew we would need to perform well, and our kids stepped up to the challenge.”
Both the Vikings and Pirates will compete next in the Duneland Athletic Conference meet March 1 at Crown Point. After sectionals at Chesterton on March 8, Valparaiso will host the ISHAA regional meet in the school’s main gym March 14.
“Regionals, for me, it’s my favorite meet,” Cook said. “The kids get to compete in front of a lot of their peers, and they work extremely hard day in and day out, six days a week. It’s really nice for them to have that recognition in front of their peers.
“It would be great to have all home meets, to be honest, but it doesn’t quite work that way. I would say it’s an advantage, but we went to Portage and won, too, so that was nice.”
Merrillville coach Diane Roberts acknowledged both Valparaiso’s home advantage and her team’s struggles in away meets.
“Our first meet of the year was on the road, and we lost. Our meet against Valpo was our second away meet of the season, and we lost,” Roberts said. “Clearly, we need to figure out how to compete in someone else’s gym as we compete in our own gym and the comforts of our own equipment and our own matting arrangements.”
CHESTERTON | A week after Times No. 1 Valparaiso captured a team win at Portage’s senior night, the Indians played spoiler at Chesterton’s last home meet of the regular season.
Times No. 2 Portage outscored No. 3 Trojans 108.125-105.575, but Chesterton senior Brandi Tuzinski took first place in three events and won the all-around.
Tuzinski’s 37.725 was just under a point better than second-place Danielle Solis (37.125) of Portage. The Trojans senior took first on the beam (9.375), bars (9.5) and floor exercise (9.75).
“Coming into the meet, (Tuzinski) was a little bit stressed, because it was her last home meet. She was emotional and wanted to do well,” Chesterton coach Lauren West said. “I could tell she was tense, but once we got started, she was able to relax.
“We really focused on tweaking her skills to get full credit and the bonus. She really put it all together for us today.”
Solis took first on the vault (9.750) and finished second all-around. Madison Kurtz (37.075) took third for Portage.
“I think it was good that we could win,” Portage coach Karen Barcelli said. “We made some mistakes, but a lot of girls were putting new things in today. Being able to perform and get one of our better scores this year is (good).
“We made some mistakes, but those were mistakes that probably hadn’t been made all year but kind of needed to before we get to the postseason.”
Barcelli was glad her gymnasts were finally able to put some new skills into competition after the weather wreaked havoc on gymnastics schedules this winter.
“They are skills that the girls have been working on. They just haven’t been able to compete them in a meet,” Barcelli said. “Our meet schedule has been so screwed up because of the weather, it kind of gave us more of an opportunity to work on (new skills) in the gym, but not in a meet.”
MICHIGAN CITY | For the second season in a row, the Michigan City gymnastics team has just one senior on its roster.
Natalie Smith lends experience and leadership to a young team full of potential. The Wolves are hoping to take advantage of an improving lineup and a new tournament format to advance to the state meet in Muncie.
“This is the strongest team we’ve had as far as depth. They have consistently improved,” Michigan City coach Gillian Kieft said. “(Saturday) they got their highest score of the season (108.25) thus far. They continue to improve and that’s what we’re looking for as we get ready to head into tournament time.”
Kieft admitted that even with the team’s highest score, there were some mistakes and there was still room for improvement. The biggest factor, though, was that Smith was able to compete and give the team a boost.
Smith sat out last Tuesday’s dual meet against LaPorte because she was unable to attend school and practice on Monday. Though the Wolves won the meet, Kieft said Smith’s presence and influence were missed. The Wolves were two points better on Saturday with Smith — who finished tied for third all-around (33.55) — in the lineup
“Just to have a senior out there to keep their composure (is important),” Kieft said. “Someone who is a senior, who has been there numerous times, knows exactly what it’s going to take when we get into conference. (Smith) obviously has that experience and knows how to be mentally tough when it counts.”
As the team’s lone senior, Smith has grown into a leadership role both in and out of competition. She has helped with everything from T-shirt design and orders to making sure her younger teammates stay focused and motivated.
“There’s definitely a lot of responsibility this year,” Smith said. “A lot of the girls are looking up to me. You always have to make sure you’re making the right decisions, not only for you but for your team.”
Smith is thankful to have a trio of talented juniors — Shelby Ford, Adrienne Fuller and 2013 All-State second team honoree Ashley Koza — to help with leadership and guidance.
“I can always look to them for advice, too. We all have a very good mentality,” Smith said. “We all make sure that we build each other up. My goal is just to be confident in everyone and build them up and not bring them down. It’s definitely my job to make sure that everyone has the right motivation.”
Saturday’s win was bittersweet for Smith, who competed in the final home meet of her career. The experience was highly emotional.
“I probably cried, like, the whole time,” Smith said with a laugh. “I didn’t even make it into the gym without looking around and bawling my eyes out. It’s definitely very memorable, competing in that gym.”
Smith doubts her senior day signifies the last time she’ll step into the gym, and knows it doesn’t mean the last time she’ll compete with her team. With the change to the regional format, Smith and the Wolves are hoping to make a run to the state championship meet.
“We are trying to get into that third spot so badly,” Kieft said with a laugh. “We don’t care about two anymore, we’re OK with being three. We are just trying to squeak in there and use that format to our advantage. It’s going to be very important that we can count on (Smith) to step up when it’s needed.”
PORTAGE | Even in a team loss, Danielle Solis had a memorable senior night.
The Portage senior tied her own school record on the vault with a 9.825, and then set a program mark in the floor exercise with a 9.85 Wednesday.
Despite her efforts, Portage fell 112.275-109.825 to rival Valparaiso in a Duneland Athletic Conference matchup of the top two teams from last year’s state finals.
The Times No. 1 Vikings exacted a measure of revenge after finishing second to Portage in Muncie last year and remained undefeated in dual meets this season.
Lia Milroy finished second in the all-around, scoring 37.95 with first-place finishes on bars (9.265) and on beam (9.675).
“It’s nice to stay undefeated in the conference, because our conference is so tough,” Valpo coach Lorie Cook said. “You're tested anytime you go to a DAC school.”
Hanna Wilson took fourth place all-around (36.825) for Valparaiso, and Rushelle Miller was fifth (35.850).
Solis finished first all-around (37.975), winning both the vault and floor exercise.
“She did an awesome job,” Portage coach Karen Barcelli said. “I knew she’d (break records) this year. She’s definitely been a steady scorer for us and a definite asset.”
Madison Kurtz finished third all-around for Portage with a 37.15 score. Delaney Barcelli finished sixth overall (34.150).
Portage’s 109.825 was its highest score of the season.
LOWELL | Melena Hernandez's comeback trail keeps growing longer and longer.
It has been two years since the now-senior competed for the Lowell gymnastics team, a dry spell that should finally come to an end this week as the Red Devils have three meets on the docket. While inclement weather has wreaked havoc on the schedule so far this season and though Lowell has competed in two meets so far, nagging injuries have kept Hernandez out of the lineup.
The return has been a long time coming for Hernandez, who competed for Lowell her freshman season but focused on club gymnastics as a sophomore and junior.
“I wanted to get back into club so I could get bigger skills and I wanted to get my technique cleaned up,” Hernandez said of her hiatus. “I wanted to come back and finish with all my friends and be a part of the school for my last year.”
With Hernandez back, Lowell has on paper one of its deepest teams in recent memory. Second-year head coach Joe Rodenbucher is happy to have his senior on the team — and will be even happier once she’s able to compete.
“She took (time) off from high school, but she still did club gymnastics. She wasn’t totally out of it,” Rodenbucher said. “She’s come a long way. You can see the maturity in the way she carries herself. She’s really trying hard to be a leader and set an example. That’s what you look for out of a senior, whether she’s been here four years or just her freshman year and this year.”
With dual meets scheduled against Portage and Hobart this week and the LaPorte Invitational on Saturday, Rodenbucher is hopeful Hernandez and all of his gymnasts will finally get a break from the weather and be able to get into a routine.
“It’s really not even just meets that we’ve been snowed out of, it’s also practices,” Rodenbucher said. “We’ve just been kind of adapting and if we get snowed out then we just try to get it in when we can. It’s been tough. It’s hard to get the girls in any regular schedule.”
The sectional meet is less than a month away, and Rodenbucher is ready to get Hernandez in the flow of competition. He hopes the senior can help the Red Devils make a deep postseason run.
“No matter how good you are or how much you put into it, there’s always a little bit of angst,” Rodenbucher said. “She wants to get that first meet under her belt for her senior year so we can gauge exactly where she’s at and really start looking forward to the rest of the season and sectionals and hopefully further.”
For her part, Hernandez is ready to finally reach the end of the ever-extending comeback trail.
“I’m excited. I just want to go out there and do my best,” Hernandez said. “I think I am healthy and recovered from any of my injuries. I’m ready to compete and show everybody what they expect from me.”
VALPARAISO | There’s a saying that the only sure things in life are death and taxes, but residents of Northwest Indiana can count on one more: the Duneland Athletic Conference will be good in gymnastics.
The conference has won five of the last six IHSAA state championships and remains a hotbed for gymnastics talent. Led by Times No. 1 Valparaiso, six of the top eight teams ranked in a statewide coaches poll hail from the DAC.
“I voted for seven conference schools in the top 15 this week,” Vikings coach Lorie Cook said. “We’re very spoiled up here by all of the great gymnastics. It’s basically the hotbed in the state. Competition breeds stiffer competition as you go along. This isn’t an unusual year, this has happened many times.”
In the poll, Valparaiso has held the No. 1 spot all season. Michigan City and Merrillville are sandwiched between the only non-DAC schools in the top eight: No. 2 Fort Wayne Dwenger and No. 5 Columbus North. Defending state champion Portage is No. 6, followed by Chesterton and Crown Point.
“Our conference is pretty unique; we have, I think, the strongest conference in the state as far as gymnastics goes,” said Chesterton coach Lauren West, whose Trojans lost 112.025-105.324 in a dual meet at Valparaiso on Tuesday. “It’s really cool to see, because that brings the best in all the girls. No matter what team they’re on, they see the competition in their conference and they really push their skills and bring their best every single meet. Every year, the talent gets better and better.”
West is no stranger to the competition in the DAC, having competed for the Trojans in the early 2000s. Chesterton's most-decorated gymnast, West is now in her third year at the head of the program, a relative newcomer by DAC standards. Both Cook and Merrillville head coach Diane Roberts have been leading their teams since the early 1980s.
“The teams in this area are really strong mentally and the coaches are very knowledgeable,” West said. “I look up to them and I have discussion (about strategy) with them. They know what they’re doing and down at state it definitely shows.”
Of the 41 state gymnastics championships host by the IHSAA, DAC schools have taken 37 percent of the titles. Valparaiso’s eight state championships led the way, followed by Chesterton’s three titles and two each from Portage and Merrillville.
“It keeps you on your toes,” Cook said of the competition. “You’ve got to work, work, work or you’re not going to be at the state meet. We respect everybody in our conference and know that if they were somewhere else they would probably be at the state meet because they would probably have an easier route.”
Changes to the ISHAA tournament format may allow more DAC schools to get to the state meet. Under the previous layout, two teams from each of the four regionals would advance, a total of eight teams. Starting this year, there are only three regionals, but three teams from each advance for a total of nine.
“Three teams go out of our regional, so we are hoping that three teams from the DAC will be down there,” Cook said. “It would be nice.”
VALPARAISO | Tumbling for the Times No. 1 Valparaiso gymnastics team, sophomore Lia Milroy has a distinct advantage over much of the competition.
Milroy — an all-state honoree as a freshman — is already one of the best gymnasts on her team. But with 17 other teammates, Milroy hasn’t been thrown into the same leadership role as many young region gymnasts. Instead, Milroy has been able to grow into the role while older teammates pave the way.
“I have a really supportive team and great coaching, so that helps a lot,” Milroy said. “It’s really fun. We’ve been through a lot as a team. For people to be able to step up and fill those (leadership) shoes has given me a great opportunity.”
Nearing the midway point of her sophomore season, Milroy is beginning to inherit some of those leadership responsibilities. No matter whether the team is competing or simply practicing, Milroy is excited just to be there. Her positive attitude is contagious.
“She won our mental attitude award last year and that pretty much sums it up,” Vikings coach Lorie Cook said. “If she has a bad break she’s able to get right back on that positive track right away.”
The tradition of success in the Valparaiso gymnastics program is meaningful to Milroy. She understands where the program has been and knows she’ll have to contribute to keep the program at that high level.
“Lia came into our gym before her freshman year and recognized and welcomed the team atmosphere and the idea that team-first is important. She embraces that concept,” Cook said. “She is always a hard worker and generally has a positive attitude. She’s pretty persistent in the pursuit of her goals. She’s a determined person and the tradition of our team (success) means a lot to her and she wants to try to do her part.”
Milroy was given a trial-run as the leader of the program late last month when junior Rushelle Miller suffered a foot injury and missed a meet against LaPorte. Like she has many times this season, Milroy led the Vikings to a team win, taking all-around individual honors with first-place finishes in the floor exercise, uneven bars and vault. Even though the fellow all-arounder Miller was out, Milroy said she didn’t feel a higher urgency to perform well.
“I don’t think any extra pressure was put on because of the depth that our team has,” Milroy said. “But she’s a big part of our team, so that wasn’t the best thing, having her out.”
Even after a successful turn as the team leader, Milroy is thankful to have Miller working her way back into the rotation.
“It’s definitely a good thing,” Milroy said. “She has a lot to offer. She’s a great gymnast.”
Given the opportunity to grow into the role instead of being thrust into it, Milroy has been able to observe and learn how to be a leader. In an ever-changing environment like high school athletics, it’s a luxury not many are afforded.
“Every year is a new team, even if you have many people back from the prior year,” Cook said. “There has to be kind of a melting and molding of all of those personalities to establish what the atmosphere is going to be like in the gym.
“Lia’s been working to try to bring everyone together and to set the example for the way we want things done. We had some big shoes to fill and she’s been one of the ones to step up and help make things happen.”
CROWN POINT | For Hannah Best and Crown Point, confidence, concentration and consistent improvement are season-long goals on both the personal and team levels.
The Bulldogs gymnastics team is in a transition year with a completely different look from last season. As a result, the sophomore all-around gymnast has been thrust into a leadership role.
“I just try to keep the team going,” Best said. “Most of the team is freshmen, so they can get distracted easily.”
Best knows what kind of success can be had by a freshman gymnast. She finished fifth on floor (9.45) at last year's state championship meet. It was a personal transition for Best. The kind she hopes to inspire in her teammates this season.
“I’m more consistent with it,” Best said of the floor exercise. “It’s just getting easier for me. When I was in club gymnastics, it wasn’t one of my best events; it was one of my worst. Since I did so well last year with it, I’m just more confident. Now, it comes easier to me.”
While serving as a beacon of consistency for her team on floor, Best is also trying to improve herself in the other events.
“I think most improved is … bars,” Best said. “I got my double back flyaway (again). I lost it at the beginning of the year last year, but I got it back. It’s just more consistent and cleaner.”
It has been a surprisingly successful season so far for the rebuilding Bulldogs, and Crown Point could make another run like last year’s third-place finish at the Valparaiso Regional.
“Considering that our team has changed a lot from last year, I think it’s actually going pretty well,” Best said. “We’re doing a lot better than we expected. We’re all just pushing through it.”
Growing as a gymnast, Best is hoping to improve on her ninth-place all-around finish at last year’s regional. According to her coach Ami Pysh, the sky is the limit for Best.
“Hannah is doing very well so far this year,” Pysh wrote in an email. “She has consistently scored a 9.5 or above on her … floor routine. She is as strong right now as she was at the end of last season (and) I look for it to be a great year yet again for her.”
Concentration, confidence and consistent improvement are the keys for Best – and for the Bulldogs.
“I think (the goal) is just to keep doing what I’ve been doing and to stay confident,” Best said. “Sometimes I’ll lose my concentration or my confidence, but I know I’ve got to just keep my confidence with everything I do.”
PORTER TWP. | For Boone Grove gymnast Jessica Stahl, one truly is the loneliest number.
The sophomore is the only gymnast from her school, making practices deserted and meets isolated. While other gymnasts listen to a dozen or more teammates screaming, chanting and cheering, Stahl competes as an individual.
Her biggest cheerleader is her mom, Julie, who doubles as her coach.
“It is harder because you’re not with somebody that actually pushes you, too,” Jessica said. “There are people around you who push you, but you’re not pushed by another teammate.”
The sophomore competed at the 24th annual Valparaiso Viking Invitational on Saturday and briefly experienced what it might be like to have a teammate as she was paired with all-around champion Alex Cool, who was competing alone for Hamilton High School.
The pair pulled for each other during the various routines, cheering each other on. It made a big difference, Stahl said, one that has to be experienced to be understood.
“It just motivates you,” Stahl said. “I don’t know how to explain it. It just does.”
Stahl finished 10th overall at the meet with 31.30 points including an 8.5 in the floor exercise, which Stahl considers her strongest event. Despite a couple of costly falls on the balance beam — including one on a high-difficulty back flip stunt — Stahl said she improved the most in that event.
The lone Wolf looks forward to continuing to add new skills to her routines and eventually score a 9.0 in an event.
It has been an eye-opening experience for Julie, who is in her first season as the head coach of the program and labels her gymnastics experience as “moderate” after helping Jessica for the past six years.
“I don’t think I’ve missed too many practices,” Julie said. “I’ve had a lot of interaction with the club and the coaches there. It has been awesome.”
While it’s Julie’s job to motivate Jessica in practices and meets, the overall experience might be even more exciting and moving for the coach and mother.
“It’s actually inspiring to be coaching her and seeing her accomplishments,” Julie said. “She’s learned a lot of skills even just in the last week.
“I look for Jessica to demonstrate consistency in her scoring throughout the meets and improve some of her higher skills. She’s going to get more and more superior skills involved in her routines.”
VALPARAISO | For the Vikings, 13 may have been an unlucky number.
The Valparaiso gymnastics team won its 13th straight Viking Invitational on Saturday afternoon at the home fieldhouse, but lost junior all-arounder Rushelle Miller to injury partway through her floor exercise.
Miller was forced to halt her floor routine after suffering an apparent foot injury. The junior was going for a precautionary X-ray after the meet, but was in good spirits and didn’t believe the injury was serious.
After the injury, Miller was unable to complete the floor exercise and did not compete in the vault. Vikings coach Lorie Cook did not tip her cards as to whether or not she believes Miller will be ready for Tuesday’s dual meet when Valparaiso hosts LaPorte.
“Injuries are a part of sports,” Cook said. “We seamlessly went on, and that’s what you do. We have team depth and that’s why you develop everybody. Rushelle’s a hard worker and she’ll be back.
“Rushelle will be in (against LaPorte) if she’s one of our top 12. That’s basically it.”
Despite the injury to Miller, Valparaiso had a strong showing and totaled 110.625 points to win the 24th annual Viking Invite. Lia Milroy finished second all-around (37.025) while Caroline Miller took first place in the vault (9.5) and Hanna Wilson won on the balance beam (9.55).
“Basically, everybody hit their routine. We didn’t have any falls and we didn’t have any extra swings,” Cook said. “That’s great, especially in a regular team format with just four kids competing (in each event). We are a team with lots of depth and that’s awesome; it’s great for dual meets. We have a lot of young kids, and it was great to see them step up and do great today.”
The Vikings scored nearly 13 more points than runner-up Huntington North while using eight gymnasts. Because of Rushelle Miller’s injury, Milroy was Valparaiso’s only all-arounder. Cook viewed the meet as a learning experience for her young squad.
“We’re getting more consistent and we’re continuing to add skills,” Cook said. “We’re going to build off of having good performances here and have the confidence to go for bigger routines (and) higher scores.”
Competing as an individual, Boone Grove sophomore Jessica Stahl finished 10th all-around (31.3).
VALPARAISO | Considering the recent success the Valparaiso gymnastics team has had at the state level, back-to-back second place finishes could almost be considered a slump.
The nine-time team state champion Vikings were the runner-up to Fort Wayne Bishop Dwenger in 2012 and to Duneland Athletic Conference rival Portage in 2013, both times by a fraction of a point. Now a young team with a tradition to uphold, the Vikings look to junior all-arounder Rushelle Miller to lead the way.
“Rushelle’s been second twice. And second is awesome; only one other team in the state was happier than we were,” Valparaiso coach Lorie Cook said. “Needless to say, it was a great accomplishment.”
A junior, Miller is a veteran with experience on a largely inexperienced team. Thrust into a leadership role after the graduations of all-arounders Morgan Algozine and Hannah Erwin, Miller is in a position to help improve her team while continuing to improve herself.
“I don’t think it’s a role that Rushelle relishes as far as, ‘Oh, I’m going to be the leader now.’ She would prefer to be more of a quiet leader by her work ethic, which is amazing,” Cook said. “But, that being said, I think she realizes that we have a young team and she needs to step up. She’s been doing that.
“Her work ethic, again, speaks for itself in terms of her desire to try to keep the tradition going. It’s important to her as well as her teammates and she’s hardly missed any practices since the end of last year. That’s why Rushelle is very much improved.”
More a leader by example than by words, Miller is thankful that last year’s seniors have returned to the program to work with gymnasts this season, even after graduating.
“They’re helping us out a lot this year,” Miller said. “It’s been easy to follow in their footsteps because they were such good leaders. You want to, not take their place, but live up to what they left us.”
Miller has a strong sophomore class backing her up that includes Lia Milroy — who took first place all-around in a dual at Crown Point on Thursday and at a Vikings Pairs Invitational on Saturday — and Caroline Miller.
“I love helping them,” Miller said. “We all just work together so well. It’s really nice.”
With the sting of two years’ worth of runner-up finishes in the back of her mind, Miller is ready to lead her team back to Muncie for another shot at a state title.
“I think all of us are trying to work really hard and using that (half-point loss to Portage) as motivation to get us to keep going,” Miller said. “Obviously, Portage did really well. We’re just trying to get our strength back and get back as a team again.”
Cook believes Miller’s growth over the offseason is a sign of what’s to come. Since she’s only a junior, the sky could be the limit for Miller.
“I think it will be easier for her as she goes along to be a more vocal leader. I think that’s a role she will grow into more,” Cook said. “I don’t think her work ethic will change, I think she’ll still be the workhorse. I think as she goes along she’ll gain even more confidence, and confidence is a huge thing in gymnastics.
“That will help her continue to add skills to her routine and to compete consistently. That’s what it’s all about.”
CROWN POINT | Over three hours after the start of their dual meet, Duneland Athletic Conference rivals Valparaiso and Crown Point were still flipping and flying with a winner yet to be determined.
A lighting issue caused a 15-minute delay after the teams completed the vault and balance beam competitions in the Crown Point fieldhouse and moved into the Bulldogs gymnastics room for the floor exercise and uneven bars. A switch was flipped accidentally during the transition, and the halogen bulbs took some time to power back up.
Valparaiso head coach Lorie Cook said during the outage that she didn’t believe the delay would have a negative effect on competition. Athletes from both schools appeared loose throughout the break and during the competition that followed.
The Vikings won 108.65-103.05.
Caroline Miller’s 9.4 paced the vault scores and sophomore Lia Milroy had the highest score (9.225) on the balance beam and led the Vikings with a 9.2 on floor.
Crown Point sophomore Hannah Best posted a team-best 9.0 on the uneven bars. At deadline, Valparaiso had not competed on the bars and the Bulldogs were preparing for floor exercise.
Through her three events, Milroy led the field for the all-around title. Her 9.3 vault score was bested only by Miller and she was the only gymnast to score at least a 9.0 in each of her events.
Led by Miller and Milroy, the Vikings had a particularly strong showing on the vault. Sydney Intagliata (9.1) and Rushelle Miller (8.9) rounded out the top four in the event.
Rushelle Miller joined Milroy and Crown Point’s Best as the only gymnasts with at least a 9.0 in an event with a 9.0 in the floor exercise. She came just short with an 8.925 on the balance beam.
It's been nearly 10 months since the Indians took everyone, including themselves, by surprise with a state championship.
Portage finished second behind Valparaiso in the sectional and regional before finally edging its Duneland Athletic Conference rival by half a point at state.
The moment the scores became official is one that junior Madison Kurtz will never forget.
“It was unreal to find out our hard work to just keep getting better and better … paid off,” Kurtz said. “That rivalry we had with Valpo was so intense. We accomplished exactly what we wanted to do in the meet. The day was probably a perfect day for our team.”
While Portage's win caught everyone off guard, Kurtz also surprised everyone, including herself, with a seventh-place all-around finish. She placed in the top six in three events: uneven bars (fifth); vault (tied, sixth); and floor exercise (tied, sixth).
“I would have never imagined I’d get that far,” Kurtz said. “We wanted to win, but we also just wanted to do the best that we could."
As a new season begins, the Indians are looking to Kurtz after graduating all-around state champion Mackenzie Barcelli and Lyndsey Cunningham.
“She’s been an all-arounder for two years,” coach Karen Barcelli said. “Now she’s an upperclassman and I think the leadership role she’s taking on might put a little more pressure on her but I don’t think it’ll make her more nervous. I think she’ll step up because there is more pressure.
“We’ve never been a team that’s had a lot of seniors, so our juniors have often taken a leadership role. I think Madison’s welcoming that.”
As a leader on a young team, Kurtz will look to match or improve upon last year. Balance beam is a focal point after finishing 36th at state.
"A lot of the problem on beam for a lot of gymnasts is just to stay calm and not get the mental worry that you’re going to fall," Kurtz said. "You have to be more positive and know that you can do that skill, that you’re going to make them because you’ve been doing them all season and know how to do them. I just need to be more confident in myself.”
Barcelli believes Kurtz is ready to take the next step.
“I’ve known all along that she’s talented enough,” Barcelli said. “The thing that high school gymnastics has, I think, helped her with is learning how to calm her nerves in competition. Skill-wise, she’s been there all along.”
With Kurtz leading the way, the Indians are hoping for another postseason run.
“I just know all of us are going to have to step up and do what we can to kind of make up for that loss,” Kurtz said. “I think we can do it, as long as we keep working together, staying positive as a team and keeping our mindset on the goals we have for this year.
“I know this whole season we’re kind of taking it day by day... We’re just hoping for the best and pushing for another state return this year as a team.”
Times Top 3
Brandi Tuzinski, Sr., Chesterton
Hannah Best, So., Crown Point
Natalie Groff, Sr., Crown Point
Melanie Smith, Sr., LaPorte
Kylee Maxwell, So., Morgan Twp.
Taylor Woods, Sr., Merrillville
Ashley Koza, Jr., Michigan City
Madison Kurtz, Jr., Portage
Danielle Solis, Sr., Portage
Rushelle Miller, Jr., Valparaiso
Caroline Miller, So., Valparaiso
Lia Milroy, So., Valparaiso
Duneland Athletic Conference
Duneland Athletic Conference
Gymnasts to watch: Brandi Tuzinski, Sr.; Jordan Kearby, So.; Taylor Rodriguez, So.; Isabelle Wheeler, Fr.
Outlook: The Trojans are young – nine of 14 gymnasts are underclassmen – but look to be improved. Led by Tuzinski, a state qualifier, Chesterton is hoping to pick up the slack on its weaker events: vault and uneven bars. “Almost all of the girls have competitive experience in the club circuit,” coach Lauren West said. “Many of the girls put in a lot of hours at their gyms this summer to amp up their difficulty, which will really show on vault and bars. We’re looking to be a threat all-around this year.”
Gymnasts to watch: Natalie Groff, Sr.; Hannah Best, So.; Autumn Chandos, Fr., Rayne Charters, Fr.; Amber St. Germaine, Fr.
Outlook: Crown Point’s team of nine is looking forward to a trio of freshmen who could have an immediate impact in Chandos, Charters and St. Germaine. With key losses in graduates Megan Supan and Emily Langston and injuries to Samantha Nichol and Brittnee Miles, coach Ami Pysh looks for this to be a rebuilding year.
Gymnasts to watch: Andi Wartman, Jr.; Amaris Gallegos, So.; Megan Misirly, So.; Emma Weissbeck, So.; Alyssa Klapowski, Fr.
Outlook: Lake Central has a good mix of veterans and newcomers – six returners and seven rookies. L.C. will rely on a trio of sophomores – Gallegos, Misirly and Weissbeck – along with Wartman and Klapowski. “The girls have been working hard and focusing on their individual goals as well as our goals as a team...” first-year coach Myra Lolkema said.
Gymnasts to watch: Kylee Harlow, Sr.; Marissa Hill, Sr.; Melanie Smith, Sr.; Sarah Zyzmuntowski, Fr.
Outlook: LaPorte is a small team with only six girls, but coach Emily Crabtree doesn’t think that is necessarily a bad thing. "It’s easier to work with the girls (one-on-one) more and get them better prepared for every meet,” she said. “That’s definitely one of the strengths of having a small team.” Crabtree admitted it would be nice to have more gymnasts, but she is thankful to have the experienced trio of Harlow, Hill and Smith leading the way.
Gymnasts to watch: Kristina Goodman, Sr.; Taylor Woods, Sr.; Bethany Rochefort, So.; Heather Osorio, Fr.
Outlook: Merrillville has a long line of sectional near misses, and the goal is to make it to regionals as a team. The 10-member squad with five returning letterwinners is still an enigma to coach Diane Roberts. “If I’ve learned anything after doing this for 41 years it’s that just about the time you think you’re looking really good, everyone else is looking better,” Roberts said. “It’s going to be hard to tell until we get through probably the first three meets in our state.”
Gymnasts to watch: Natalie Smith, Sr.; Shelby Ford, Jr.; Adrienne Fuller, Jr.; Ashley Koza, Jr.; Kristen Gushrowski, So.
Outlook: Michigan City lost just one senior to graduation and has just one senior, Natalie Smith, on the squad. Smith will be looked upon to provide leadership along with Ford, Fuller and Ashley Koza, who finished ninth on the uneven bars at state. “This season is looking very promising,” coach Gillian Kieft said. “This should be our strongest season since 2006.”
Gymnasts to watch: Danielle Solis, Sr.; Madison Kurtz, Jr.
Outlook: The defending state champions graduated floor and all-around champion Mackenzie Barcelli and will look to Solis and Kurtz, who finished seventh all-around, to lead a very young team. “This is the largest team (17 members) we’ve had since I’ve been here, but most of them are freshmen,” coach Karen Barcelli said. “...I hope that means we’ll have a lot of depth. Hopefully those holes will be filled by a bunch of girls who might specialize in individual events.”
Gymnasts to watch: Rushelle Miller, Jr.; Caroline Miller, So.; Lia Milroy, So.
Outlook: Valparaiso was the state runner-up and graduated vault and bars champion Morgan Algozine. “We have a group of 18 gymnasts working hard to be the best they can be, and they hope to provide the needed depth for a successful season,” coach Lorie Cook said. Cylie Miller, Emily Lynch and Hanna Wilson, alternates last year, and they should step up to fill open spots in the lineup.
Gymnast to watch: Jessica Stahl, So.
Outlook: Stahl is Boone Grove’s lone participant. She will be coached by her mother, Julie. “She’s made great strides,” coach Stahl said. “She worked hard over the summer and this fall and has gained many more skills. She’s a very hard worker and she’s very determined.”
Gymnast to watch: Morgan Gospadarek, So.
Outlook: The Brickies have no juniors or seniors and also no club gymnasts – but coaches Jenny and Jose Crespo believe the hard-working group has made great individual improvements already. While the eye is on the future, including a middle school crop that could eventually put Hobart gymnastics back firmly on the map, the Crespos are also excited about this year’s team. “The team is working in strengthening confidence,” Jose Crespo said. “If we add a little more confidence in their abilities to accompany their work ethic, the team will make vast improvements.”
Gymnasts to watch: Sam Hammer, Sr.; Melena Hernandez, Sr.; Skyler Lewis, Jr.; LeeAnn Sheets, Jr.; Erin Brown, Fr.
Outlook: The return of Hernandez, who took a couple of seasons off, gives Lowell what is likely its deepest team in years. Hernandez has the potential to advance beyond the sectional, while Hammer, Sheets and Lewis lend talent and high school experience to the mix. “This year’s team as a whole is focused, close-knit and has the dynamics to be one of Lowell’s best,” coach Joe Rodenbucher said. In addition to the upperclassmen, Brown is expected to make an immediate impact at the varsity level.
Gymnast to watch: Kylee Maxwell, So.
Outlook: Maxwell again is her school's only competitor. She’ll be looking to make a return to the state meet, where she finished tied for fifth all-around as a freshman with top-10 finishes in vault, balance beam and floor exercise.
-- compiled by Michael Raines
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