VALPARAISO | One of Northwest Indiana’s long-standing sports rivalries comes to a head this weekend in IHSAA postseason action.
Top-ranked Valparaiso and defending-champion Portage face off at Saturday's gymnastics state championship meet in Muncie.
The Vikings are undefeated so far this season, but coach Lorie Cook isn’t downplaying the importance of just reaching the championship.
“Anytime you make it to the state finals, it’s absolutely amazing,” Cook said. “That’s what you work for, the opportunity to compete for a state championship."
Valparaiso owns an IHSAA-record nine titles. Portage upset the Vikings by a half-point last season for the program’s second state championship and first since 1975.
The Indians are aware they face an uphill battle in the quest to repeat. Portage is also thankful for the opportunity.
“The plan was to make it to state,” Portage coach Karen Barcelli said. “We knew that it would be difficult. That we’re going as a team is fantastic.”
The rivalry between the Vikings and Indians cannot be overstated. Like the best rivalries in sports, this one is defined by proximity, familiarity and a mutual respect. Competing against each other for a Duneland Athletic Conference title and throughout each step of the postseason, Valparaiso and Portage have challenged each other for years.
“I definitely would say that they’ve pushed us a lot to improve our skills,” Portage senior Danielle Solis said. “It’s always good having a rival right there, next door."
A four-year veteran of the perennial battle that is DAC gymnastics – and now a four-time competitor at the state championship meet – Solis knows the intensity of the competition. But a younger generation of Indians and Vikings has cemented gymnastics as a top-flight IHSAA sport. Both programs are saddled with young, talented rosters this season.
“I think a lot of the girls, if they’re that good in the program, it’s obvious that they are club gymnasts,” Barcelli said. “It’s good to see that they’re making high school (gymnastics) important to them. It helps support the sport in the state. It’s kind of been an iffy situation in whether gymnastics was going to continue in the state and it just seems like a lot of girls are pretty fired up about still doing that.”
Valparaiso sophomore Lia Milroy is one such gymnast. Having focused hard on improving her vault score, Milroy leads a deep Vikings team as the anchor on each event.
Unlike most teams, which send its top four girls out for each event, Valparaiso mixes up its rotation with five or six gymnasts competing and scoring. Often, Milroy is the team’s only all-arounder competing in all four events.
“I think it is (an advantage) because we have girls that are strong on each event,” Milroy said. “I feel very fortunate to (compete in all four events).”
Portage doesn’t change its plan based on how Valparaiso lines up.
“They’re fortunate to have such a large pool to take from. I think at any point in time they can pull up somebody to fill someone’s spot, so it must be nice knowing that you can do that,” Barcelli said. “But I don’t think it makes it more difficult for us because our competition doesn’t change based on what they do."
That’s the nature of gymnastics.
“The whole object is to focus on what we’re doing, because we can control that. We can’t really control what they’re doing, though if we could we’d probably work really hard at that, too,” Cook said with a laugh. “We’re going to lay it on the line and let the pieces fall where they may.”
Regardless of Saturday’s outcome, both teams are relishing the chance to renew their rivalry and to compete for a state championship.
“It’s actually really motivating to have (Valpo) there,” Solis said. “It just makes us work harder since we’ve been competing against them all year. We’re just trying to get down there and do what we know we can do with no regrets.”