NEW PALESTINE — Jenny Musselman and her husband welcomed their second child into the world in July.
Six months later, Musselman has seven more bouncing “babies” to rear.
The New Palestine gymnastics coach opens the 2013 season with 14 athletes — the most tumblers she’s had on the roster in her six years leading the program.
Included in the talented, expansive group are four freshmen and three sophomores who, combined with significant graduation losses by powerhouses Roncalli and Franklin Central, make the Dragons early postseason favorites.
“With what we have heard from the other schools, we’re the ones with the targets on our back,” Musselman said.
Roncalli, four-time defending sectional champs, are without the services of sisters Cassie and Kaitie Schultheis, who generally kicked butt and took names in leading the Rebels to a 38-0 regular season record in their four seasons. Franklin Central’s Emily Baker finished third behind the Schultheis girls in the sectional all-around last season, and she also graduated.
The Dragons, third as a team in last year’s postseason opening tourney behind the aforementioned squads, will host the sectional March 2.
Expected to contend for the all-around title is Kenzi Hoffman, the Dragons’ senior who placed fourth last year behind the Schultheis and Baker, then advanced all the way to the State Finals, notching a high of 24th place on the balance beam in the competition at Ball State University.
In the Dragons’ season-opener Tuesday at Connersville, Hoffman was in prime form, taking first place on the vault (9.2) and beam (9.05) and finishing second in the all-around (34.325). She helped the Dragons (102.95) turn back New Castle (93.75) and the host Spartans (93.65).
“I think it would be a disappointment if I didn’t make it back (to the State Finals),” Hoffman said of her 2013 ambition. “But, I would definitely like to go as a team. I’ve been two years by myself or with one other person. It’s fun, but to have more people and to have all of my teammates, that would be the ultimate goal.”
Hoffman may get her wish. The top two teams advance from the regional to the state finals; last year, the Dragons finished third at regionals. Their depth in 2013 could get them over the hump, and it was on display Tuesday.
New Palestine sophomore Kate Fee (34.925) edged Hoffman for all-around honors and took first on the floor exercise (8.575). Senior Shelly Huesman, who battled ankle injuries her first three seasons, is fully healthy, and she won the uneven bars competition for the Dragons Tuesday with an 8.9.
Fee’s performance was no surprise to Musselman, who, on Monday, said, “Kate Fee is probably going to really dominate on beam and floor for us. She’ll be a real big hitter.”
Junior Kylie Zehner, freshman Annabelle Dockins and senior Ciarra Hough also contributed to the Dragons’ scoring at Connersville.
It was a promising start for the group, which will have to make up for the losses of Whitney Weileman and Jessica Marshall.
Weileman joined Hoffman as the lone Dragons representatives at the State Finals last season as a junior. But, she graduated mid-term this school year to pursue a career in nursing and is not on the team. Marshall was a consistent scorer for New Palestine last year as a senior.
Weileman was at her best on the uneven bars, and she finished third behind Kaitie and Cassie Schultheis in that sectional event last season, eventually making it to the State Finals on the bars, as well as the vault.
“She definitely was a big part of the team and she definitely contributed a lot, obviously on bars,” Hoffman said. “But just overall in the team atmosphere. She was one of the main people, chemistry wise and as a team leader.
“I think we all miss her. It’s been really different without her and Jess.”
New varsity contributors Fee and Dockins and a five-deep senior class should negate the loss of Weileman.
“We have enough to make up for her loss,” Musselman said. “It will be hard to replace her on bars, but with our new talent that’s come out, we can make up for her on floor and beam and vault. Bars is a tough one, and that’s by far our weakest as a team, anyway.
“Having (Weileman) plus our new talent would have just made us be like a dominating factor, but every team has a weakness and that’s just going to be our weakness this year. We’ll adjust and adapt just like we always do.”
Julie Hilton and Maddie Wallace join Hoffman, Huesman and Hough as New Palestine seniors. Zehner will also be an upperclassmen asset.
“Kylie, she has improved probably more than anybody else over the offseason, so I’m really interested to see how she will do,” Musselman said. “She’s starting to come into her own.”
The Dragons clearly have enough talent to go around. And, just as importantly, it’s healthy talent.
Never before has Musselman opened a season without at least one competitor battling a significant injury.
“I think because we have a bigger team, that’s allowed us to slow down a little bit,” said Musselman, whose roster last season was eight-deep. “I don’t think that we’ve ever necessarily overtrained, but I think there were times the girls would work out at home, too, and start to get shin splints or whatever. Then they’d baby those and start to get other injuries.”
Also at peak physical condition is the Dragons’ coach. Musselman, a former gymnastics regional qualifier for New Palestine, is in top shape after going through pregnancy.
She said her hubby also got in on the weight loss program, albeit sooner than the coach would have liked.
“My husband lost like 45 pounds while I was pregnant, so that really ticked me off,” Musselman said with a laugh. “I was like ‘You’re losing weight while I’m gaining.’ Every pound he lost, I gained it. I was so mad.”
The couple, who also have a two-year-old child, plan to run in their first Indy mini-marathon in May, hopefully on the heels of New Palestine’s first gymnastics sectional title since 2006 — and a team run to the State Finals — in March.
“If everything goes well, we should be contending for a sectional title,” Musselman said. “I think that’s a pretty fair statement. As long as we stay healthy, that’s always a key. I hate saying it, but there will probably be something go wrong before the season’s over.
“But, we’re more of a veteran team, plus we have a lot of new girls, so if someone goes down, I think we should be okay.”
The Dragons will host Shelbyville tonight in their first home meet of the season.
New Palestine gymnastics schedule. Home meets (at NP Elementary) in bold.
Date Opponent Time
Jan. 8 at Connersville w/New Castle (W, W)
NP 102.95, NC 93.75, CO 93.65
Jan. 10 Shelbyville 6 p.m.
Jan. 19 at Richmond 10 a.m.
w/New Castle/Muncie South
Jan. 22 Morristown 6 p.m.
Jan. 24 at Roncalli 6 p.m.
Jan. 29 Noblesville 6 p.m.
Feb. 2 Rushville Invitational 10 a.m.
Feb. 4 Rushville (Senior Night) 6 p.m.
Feb. 6 at Hagerstown w/Muncie South 6 p.m.
Feb. 9 Bloomington North Invitational 11 a.m.
Feb. 19 at Shelbyville 6 p.m.
Feb. 23 Columbus East Invitational noon
March 2 New Palestine Sectional TBD
March 8 Regional at Lafayette Jefferson TBD
March 16 State Finals at Ball State
Julie Hilton 12
Kenzi Hoffman 12
Ciarra Hough 12
Shelly Huesman 12
Maddie Wallace 12
Savannah Eldridge 11
Kylie Zehner 11
Kate Fee 10
Bailey McDonald 10
Baylee Siergiej 10
Annabelle Dockins 9
Katie McDonald 9
Carley Miller 9
Meghan Reel 9