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.”