CONNERSVILLE — Someone needed to step up for New Palestine.
Soon after enjoying the high of a solid display on the uneven bars, the Dragons gymnastics team quickly deflated after delivering one of their worst performances of the year on the balance beam smack dab in the middle of Saturday’s sectional at Connersville.
The timing could not have been worse. Not only did they kill any momentum they might have created on the bars, but the host Spartans used the collapse to close within two-tenths of a point of the first-place Dragons.
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“I looked over at them after the beam, and they were pouting and sad,” said New Palestine head coach Jenny Musselman, whose team finished behind Connersville in last year’s sectional. “I told them, ‘Guys, if you stay like this, you’re going to stink on the floor and vault.’”
Rylee Elsea decided she was not going to let that happen.
Before the sectional, the New Palestine sophomore would have seemed an unlikely hero. Until recently, she had endured six inactive weeks getting over mononucleosis.
“She was sick for about three weeks before that, too,” Musselman said. “We’re talking a significant part of the season where kids are getting in shape, and she was way behind.”
She caught up. After weeks of rigorous training and stamina-building, Elsea felt well enough to lift the Dragons on her back.
Elsea unleashed the best performance of her short career, scoring an 8.7 in the floor exercise, her only event of the day.
“She brought us back,” two-time state qualifier Kate Fee said. “She set a new tone for us.”
From there, New Palestine could not be stopped. Rylee’s sister, senior Regan Elsea, posted a meet-best 9.6 on the floor, and eventual all-around meet champion Fee delivered a 9.575.
The Dragons carried the momentum through the final event and all the way to their second team sectional championship in three years, finishing with a season-best 106.5 points.
Connersville was runner-up with 101.2 points, while New Castle (99.700) wrangled the third and final regional qualifying spot. All three teams will compete Friday at Columbus East for a chance to advance to the March 21 state finals at Ball State University.
“That was magic,” Musselman said of Rylee Elsea and the Dragons’ turnaround. “We were so sad, and then we came back from that. The girls just showed a ton of resiliency.”
New Palestine began the day with an excellent performance on the uneven bars. Regan Elsea championed the event with a score of 9.15, while Fee came in third (8.825), and Emily Heighway delivered an 8.650 to give New Palestine the best score in the event on the day (26.625) and an early lead.
Though their balance beam performance was subpar, that does come with a caveat of lofty standards.
Fee managed to defend her beam crown for a third straight season, posting a 9.025.
Though the score is not in Fee’s usual range, Musselman said she knew the senior would do what she must to defend her title.
“Kate has ice in her veins on the beam,” Musselman said. “She doesn’t get scared. Last year at sectionals, she was the only one to stay on beam. Last year at regionals, she was the only one to stay on beam. She has a way of channeling this focus and ignoring everything else in a way that one else can. It’s exceptional.”
Regan Elsea backed up Fee by capturing a tie for second place with a score of 8.450.
After Rylee Elsea lifted the Dragons’ spirits, they had a highlight reel 15 minutes in their final event, the vault. As a team, they scored a season-high 28.15 points, but the cherry on top was Regan Elsea, who nipped the New Palestine school record. She delivered a 9.6, edging the previous best of 9.55 set by Emily Goins in 2006.
“It was the monkey off her back,” said Musselman, explaining that the senior had been determined to set a Dragons’ record before she left. “She wanted to leave a legacy … She did that.”
Also chipping in to the outstanding vault performance were Fee (9.45), who finished second, Faith Land (9.1, fourth) and Tara Morey (8.7, fifth).
“There was a lot of pressure coming in here as the favorites,” Musselman said. “We had to see if we could step up to it. I told them that, and they did. … I think that’s going to help us (Friday). There’s going to be way more pressure there, but I think we showed we can handle it.”
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Eleven schools traveled to Connersville on Saturday to compete in the sectional round of the 43rd Annual IHSAA State Tournament. The top three teams advanced to Friday’s regional at Columbus East. The top six finishers in the all-around competition, as well as in each event, also moved on to the regional round.
1. New Palestine, 106.500
2. Connersville, 101.200
3. New Castle, 99.700
4. Muncie Central, 95.825
5. Richmond, 90.400
6. Shelbyville, 87.550
7. Morristown, 78.725
8. Rushville, 78.425
9. Cambridge City Lincoln, 72.400
10. Seton Catholic, 64.100
11. Centerville, 63.725
1. Kate Fee, New Palestine 36.875
2. Regan Elsea, New Palestine 36.800
3. Kierstyn Cochran, New Castle 35.375
4. Sydney Huber, Connersville 34.725
5. Claire Buchanan, Muncie Central 33.075
6. Sarah Rohe, Centerville 32.350
1. Regan Elsea, New Palestine 9.150
2. Sydney Huber, Connersville 9.075
3. Kate Fee, New Palestine 8.825
4. Emily Heighway, New Palestine 8.650
5. Kierstyn Cochran, New Castle 8.475
6. Kylee Elleman, Connersville 8.300
1. Kate Fee, New Palestine 9.025
2. Regan Elsea, New Palestine 8.450
2. Whitney Owens, Connersville 8.450
4. Kierstyn Cochran, New Castle 8.425
5. Sydney Huber, Connersville 8.350
6. Rebecca Catey, Seton Catholic 8.100
1. Regan Elsea, New Palestine 9.600
2. Kate Fee, New Palestine 9.575
3. Kierstyn Cochran New Castle 9.125
4. Sydney Huber, Connersville 8.700
4. Rylee Elsea, New Palestine 8.700
6. Lindsey Griffin, Richmond 8.650
6. Whitney Owens, Connersville 8.650
6. Claire Buchanana, Muncie Central 8.650
1. Regan Elsea, New Palestine 9.600
2. Kate Fee, New Palestine 9.450
3. Kierstyn Cochran, New Castle 9.350
4. Faith Land, New Palestine 9.100
5. Tara Morey, New Palestine 8.700
6. Olivia Malott, New Castle 8.650