LAPORTE — Before the LaPorte Pairs got underway, there was a cheerful vibe inside the Slicers' gym.
Nearly all of the gymnastics teams competing in the season-opening meet wore festive clothing to celebrate the upcoming holiday season. The gymnasts donned Christmas sweaters, decorative socks and headbands, and a few even wore elf ears and reindeer antlers.
The outcome of the LaPorte Pairs doesn't count towards any teams' official record, giving way to a more lighthearted setting, but defending state champion Chesterton still dominated while having a lot of fun.
The Washington Township pair Callie Fieldsien and Ashley Kennedy finished in first place with a combined score of 43, but the Trojans took home the team title with 109 points and had all four of their duos on the podium after placing in the top six.
"I'm very proud of their performance," Chesterton coach Dawn Matthys said. "(This meet) is a great way to kind of get a lot of kids out competing in a beginning of the year meet."
Senior Jordan Bush — who won the state title on floor last season — and Hailee Ellenwood led the way for Chesterton with a combined score of 39 for second overall. The pair placed in the top six in all of the events and finished first on vault with an average score of 9.8.
Throughout most of their routines, the Trojans appeared to have the loudest supporters in the gym. Bush said she gets nervous before every routine but having the support of her teammates, coaches and fans helps to calm her nerves.
"When you're on the equipment, sometimes you hear them in the background," Bush said. "Even though you're really focused, you can always hear them."
Two-time defending all-around state champion Sophie Hunzelman and Jamie Steno scored 22 points for Chesterton — finishing fifth overall — and placed first on floor and balance beam.
Hunzelman has shown that she can hold her own, even on the biggest stages, but said she enjoys her team's overall success just as much as she appreciates her own. The balance the Trojans have is an advantage she believes will become more important as the season goes on.
"It's nice knowing you have other people who can have your back and you don't have to be the only one out there," Hunzelman said. "It's not just an individual sport. It's a team sport, and it's nice for everyone to get a good experience at this meet."
Coming full circle
Portage senior Michaella Drake and first-year coach Mackenzie Barcelli shared a moment before Drake made her final attempt on vault. As Barcelli hugged Drake, she said she told her to trust her training and give it her best shot.
On Drake's initial attempt, she ran down the mat but just before she was supposed to jump on springboard, she ran off to the side and was visibly rattled.
"I've been out for a couple months because I broke my hand while on vacation in Mexico this summer, not even gymnastics related," Drake said. "So I'm still kind of hit or miss with vault."
The senior said she's still working her way back to full-strength, but her coach's words of encouragement helped her overcome her hesitancy. And on her second attempt, not only did Drake complete her flip, she set a personal best score — helping her and Sydney Ruiz finish as the third place pair with a score of 35.
Barcelli said she was proud of Drake's performance as well her team's overall outing. She added that the team's second-place finish (46 points) still held a lot of personal significance.
Barcelli graduated from Portage in 2013 and her mom, Karen Barcelli, used to be the Indians' coach, as well.
"I am so excited to be back at Portage," Mackenzie Barcelli said. "I am expecting big things from this team and today really proved to us that this season is going to be fantastic."
Enjoying the moment
Crown Point's Isabella Mehok stands 4-foot-10 and was easily the shortest gymnast competing in the LaPorte Pairs. She was partnered with Lilly Stoelb, and did a lot of smiling and laughing after the meet.
Her goal was to have fun and enjoy a sport she once walked away from.
"I didn't start gymnastics until late, like when I was in fourth grade," Mehok said. "I stayed until around seventh grade but it got shaky after that because I got more into dance and I kind of strayed away."
Mehok said she began to reminisce about gymnastics heading into her sophomore year, and after years away from the sport, Crown coach Ami Pysh was thrilled to have her return.
"She quit Crown Point high school dance and came back to gymnastics instead," Pysh said. "She was one of ours as a little girl, so it's nice having her back with us."
Mehok and Stoelb posted an average score of 8.4 on floor to finish in 13th place. After Mehok left the mat following her routine, the fans applauded her and her teammates hugged her to show their approval.
"I really like floor because I like performing," Mehok said. "And it's really awesome when your team is going crazy because it just hypes you up."