NEW PALESTINE — The smallest high school sport in Indiana in terms of participating teams, gymnastics isn’t difficult to scout.
With only 62 teams in the entire state, gymnastics programs have a good idea who their main competition will be at the sectional level and beyond.
That common knowledge is one reason Jenny Musselman wasn’t surprised her Kenzi Hoffman-led New Palestine gymnasts won a sectional championship last season, then finished second at the regional to advance to the state finals for the first time as a team since 2006. This year’s path to Worthen Arena at Ball State University — site of the state championships — is less clear.
“We know it’s going to be a challenge, whereas last year we breathed pretty easy knowing it was going to be us and Logansport 1-2, in some combination,” Musselman said of last year’s regional, where the top two teams moved on to state.
“Our two teams were leaps and bounds above the others, so we knew almost the whole season that we were probably going to state. This year it’s going to be a lot tougher.”
Hoffman won individual sectional titles in three of four possible events, plus the all-around, then finished third in the all-around in the regional as the Dragons (103.5 points) finished runner-up to Logansport (107.1). The prior week, New Palestine won its sectional with 106.625 points, more than three points ahead of runner-up Franklin Central, which also finished three points behind the Dragons at the regional.
At the State Finals, New Palestine took seventh place (104.625) behind teams such as state champ Portage (112.6), Columbus North (109.875) and Columbus East (107.660), who finished fourth and fifth, respectively.
This season, not only has Hoffman graduated, but thanks to an IHSAA realignment of the state tourney, New Palestine will be tasked with facing Columbus North and Columbus East at the regional level.
The IHSAA reduced the number of gymnastics regionals from four to three; and three teams instead of two will now advance out of the regional.
“With the way they redid everything … we kind of know there’s going to be four teams vying for those top three spots,” Musselman said of the regional while including her squad, Columbus North, Columbus East and Connersville as the top four programs. “That’s a really hard regional.”
The Dragons will get their first look at Connersville tonight in a season-opening tri-meet with New Castle in the Spartans’ home gym. Connersville will also host New Palestine and New Castle on March 8 in the sectional.
“I’d be happy with a 98 our first meet,” said Musselman, whose squad was routinely in the 103-106 range last season (the program record score is 107.65). “I know we’re going to have a lot of nerves.
“We’re going to be good on vault, beam and floor. It’s bars where we’re going to be very weak at. We just don’t have that depth like we did last year. We lost Shelly Huesman and Kenzi on bars and they were two of our top three, really.”
Huesman and Hoffman were two of five seniors the Dragons lost to graduation. Ciarra Hough, Maddie Wallace and Julie Hilton were also part of New Palestine’s State Finals rotation last winter as seniors.
It was a sophomore, however, who outperformed all but Hoffman. Kate Fee scored a sectional title on the balance beam last season and finished 26th in the State Finals all-around in her first go-round of high school gymnastics.
“Last year it was all new to her,” Musselman said of Fee, who previously completed only in club gymnastics. “I think she was kind of dealing with some nerves, because this is a different atmosphere. The team depends on you; it’s not just you, whereas you’re completely individual in club.”
“She had never experienced having others depend on her so I think that rattled her a little. Now that she has a year under her belt, she’s come out this year a lot stronger. She knows she’s the big gun this year. She’s going to have to really deliver. We don’t have that extra wiggle room this year like we did last year.”
Sophomore Annabelle Dockins was the only New Palestine gymnast other than Hoffman to post a score above 9.0 at the State Finals with a 9.125 on the vault, and she’ll join Fee and experienced senior Kylie Zehner to form the base of New Palestine’s attempt at back-to-back Muncie appearances.
Senior Savannah Eldridge, sophomores Katie McDonald and Carley Miller and freshmen Ciarra Krohne and Rylee Elsea will also be in the mix.
There’s enough talent to defend their sectional championship, Musselman believes. How much the Dragons improve in the next two months will determine if they can make it through the regional.
“We took a big hit with graduating five seniors last year,” the coach said. “And every single one was a varsity girl. So it is going to be tough to fill in those gaps, but everybody knows where their strengths are.
“We just hope that we focus on our talents and we close those gaps from what we’re missing.”
Head coach: Jenny Musselman
Assistant coach: Deb Bruns
Last year: Dragons won a team sectional title at New Palestine, finished second at the Lafayette Regional and seventh at State Finals.
Gymnast (grade) Primary event(s)
Kate Fee (11) all-around
Kylie Zehner (12) all-around
Annabelle Dockins (10) all-around
Rylee Elsea (9) all-around
Savannah Eldridge (12) uneven bars, balance beam
Katie McDonald (10) vault, floor exercise
Carley Miller (10) vault, floor exercise
Ciarra Krohne (9) balance beam, vault, floor exercise
1/14 at Connersville w/New Castle 6:30 p.m.
1/16 at Shelbyville 6 p.m.
1/25 at New Castle w/Richmond, Muncie S. 10 a.m.
1/28 at Morristown 6 p.m.
1/30 vs. Roncalli 6 p.m.
2/4 at Noblesville 6 p.m.
2/6 at Rushville Invitational 10 a.m.
2/10 at Rushville 6 p.m.
2/12 vs. Hagerstown, Muncie South 6 p.m.
2/15 at Bloomington North Invitational 11 a.m.
2/18 at Franklin Central* 6 p.m.
2/25 vs. Shelbyville 6 p.m.
3/8 Connersville Sectional TBA
3/14 Columbus East Regional TBA
3/22 State Finals at Ball State 12:30 p.m.
All home meets at NP Elementary
* at The Gymnastics Company, Indianapolis