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.”