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.”