NEW PALESTINE — Coming off the program’s best finish in school history, expectations are as high as ever for the New Palestine gymnastics team entering the 2016 season.
Despite losing two of the Dragons’ top scorers to graduation, head coach Jenny Musselman believes New Palestine returns enough talent and depth to make another successful postseason run.
In 2015, the Dragons won their second sectional title in nine years at Connersville and nearly topped Columbus North for a regional crown at Columbus East. At the IHSAA State Finals, the team finished less than two points out of third place and settled for sixth overall in a tight race.
“Last year was definitely our best in school history,” Musselman said. “Two years before we had a really good team, too. One day, we are going to get a state medal (top four). That is a goal for me, but it’s tough to crack that top spot. But we almost did it.”
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Kate Fee and Regan Elsea (second on vault and third on all-around at state) leave big shoes to fill, but Musselman believes seniors like Annabelle Dockins and Tara Morey are ready for the challenge.
Dockins was the team’s No. 3 scorer, according to Musselman, but suffered an ACL injury that caused her to miss nearly all of the 2015 season. With her completely healthy, the head coach believes a team medal would have been more than possible — especially considering the tight state finals standings.
“She’s (Dockins) back and looking pretty good,” Musselman said. “We are still dealing with the mental block of coming back from a big, serious injury. She’s scared to overdue something and lose her senior year. She is definitely going to be one of our heavy hitters.”
Morey adds a balanced skill set and leadership to this year’s roster and was a “big surprise” last year, according to her head coach.
“She is a workhorse,” Musselman said of Morey. “She will bust her hind end everyday at practice. She was going to be our No. 4 or No. 5 girl last year but ended up being No. 3 on everything. She is getting better everyday. Between those two (Morey and Dockins), hopefully we can fill that gap with losing Kate and Regan.”
Taylor Brown, Emily Heighway and Faith Land add skill and experience, Musselman added, something the Dragons must take advantage of without its two “top dogs” from last season.
“Last year we had two level-10 girls, where this year we have like five level eight girls,” Musselman said. “This year, they are all going to have to deliver better.”
At state last year, Land was 35th on vault while was Morey 43rd. On bars, Heighway was 22nd and Dockins, who made her season debut with a simple routine, finished 44th. Morey was 30th on beam while Brown was 39th. On the floor exercise, Morey finished 42nd.
But when Musselman started nine years ago, the program had just 10 participants. This season, New Palestine has 23 girls on its roster — a testament to the work Musselman has done in almost a decade of time.
The future looks bright, as well, with 14 freshmen or sophomores on the team.
“It seems that when other programs are shrinking, ours is getting bigger,” Musselman said.
Nonetheless, the same route lies ahead if the Dragons plan to return to the highest level of competition at season’s end and slide into a top four position. Columbus North surely isn’t getting any worse, according to Musselman, and defending state champion Valparaiso dominates nearly every season.
However, New Palestine will get an early opportunity to see where they stand just weeks into the season.
On Jan 12., the team travels to Connersville to face the Trojans with New Castle, two of the top teams at the sectional meet each season. After a trip to Shelbyville on Jan. 14, the Dragons host Columbus North on Jan. 21.
“The best thing that I learn from that (first meet) is where we stand at the sectional,” Musselman said. “It gives me a mini sectional preview. It lets me know how far behind or how far ahead we are. I kind of like that first meet.”
The sectional will take place on Feb. 27 with regional competition scheduled for March 4 and 5. The state finals will conclude on March 12 at Ball State University.
Austin Hart (manager)
Dana Tilley (manager)
Danielle Lewis (manager)
Kaylee Russell (manager)