Valparaiso gymnastics coach Lorie Cook can tell you a thing or two about what it takes to win a state title, having won a record 12 of them in her career.

She can also tell you what it's like to have to fight off tough rivals. After all, the Duneland Athletic Conference is full of "circle the date on the calendar" moments.

The Duneland is debatably the best gymnastics conference in the state. Besides Valpo's state-record total, Chesterton has four state crowns while Portage and Merrillville have two each.

One rival, Chesterton, may stick out more than any for Cook. When the two teams met last season, "we would improve but they would get better, too," Cook said.

Chesterton edged the Vikings for last year's state title — and another chapter will start soon.

"I love healthy competition, and I have the upmost respect for Lorie Cook and her team," Chesterton coach Dawn Matthys said of the Vikings. "They are great girls and a great program."

Last year, though, Chesterton was better, winning the DAC dual against the Vikings plus the conference meet title before the postseason sweep. The largest margin of victory was 1.475 points and three wins were by less than a point.

"I think the proximity between us helps build the rivalry as well as the tradition both teams have," Cook said.

The talent on both teams is stellar, and it begins with a record-setting junior from Chesterton.

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Sophie Hunzelman is the Region's best high school gymnast after winning her second straight all-around title in the state meet last year. She became only the second gymnast to win the all-around in her first two prep seasons. The first was Angie Cook, Lorie's daughter. Angie Cook won all-around in 1993 and 1994.

"She's an amazingly talented gymnast," Matthys said. "She's also very calm and very level-headed. She works very hard and nothing seems to rattle her."

She also has a pretty talented teammate in Jordan Bush. Matthys said Bush was a previous Duneland MVP. She also won the floor exercise in the state meet last year (with a personal best of 9.825).

"She probably puts more hours in the gym than anyone else," Matthys said. "She's extremely driven, very hard working and a pleasure to work with."

Led by senior Whitney McKeon — who tied Hunzelman for first on beam in the state finals — Valparaiso also will have some talented athletes back.

Elizabeth Wilson placed second in the floor behind Chesterton's Bush, while junior Megan Wagenblast got state finals experience while finishing sixth in beam.

"We have a pretty strong nucleus, a tradition of success and the rest of our kids working hard to try to step up. We hope to make a run at it," Cook said.

Chesterton starts its season in Saturday's LaPorte Pairs, while Valparaiso's opens with a DAC dual on Jan. 3 against Crown Point.

The rivalry renews Jan. 29 in a DAC dual at Chesteton. If you aren't already a gymnastics fan, trust me, after watching that event, you will be.

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This column solely represents the writer's opinion. Reach him at wiltm7@aol.com