NEW PALESTINE — Even with all of the odd circumstances, related to the coronavirus pandemic, that have hit both the 2020 and 2021 seasons, the New Palestine gymnastics team is back to a normal place.
Hardly the normal routine to get there, but the Dragons find themselves, after last week’s performance at the Connersville Sectional, back at the Columbus East Regional. It is the 11th time in the last 12 years New Palestine has qualified for regional competition.
Head coach Deb Bruns said, just like any athletic program, the longevity of success for them has a lot to do with a strong feeder system. Many of her gymnasts come in with experience at the club level from both Indiana Gym Nest in Greenfield and Gymnastics Unlimited, on the east side of Indianapolis.
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“You have to have a good feeder program and we have a couple of excellent ones,” Bruns said. “Just like (New Palestine football) coach (Kyle) Ralph counts on the New Palestine youth program to feed the middle school and the middle school to feed the high school, in gymnastics, you have to have those private clubs training those kids at an early age.”
Having experienced, talented gymnasts has helped during a season like no other.
It actually started back at the end of the 2020 campaign. Gymnastics was the first IHSAA sport to deal with pandemic protocol as then-senior Grace Shanahan was preparing to compete at a crowdless state meet in Muncie.
This year has been more out of the ordinary.
The Dragons missed two weeks of practice due to pandemic quarantine and a third week due to the heavy snow that hit the area last month. They only had a handful of practices in February.
They had just four regular-season meets, along with an invitational and sectional where they bring just four gymnasts.
At the sectional, Bruns admitted taking a safer approach to the competition, working to secure the third and final team advancement spot. She knew it was going to be difficult to beat either Richmond and New Castle.
“February has been rough. Our goal was to get third (and get to the regional),” Bruns said. “We knew we couldn’t touch Richmond or New Castle, especially with having had so few practices. We had to go in and do what skills we could do safely. I think our goals worked.”
They wanted to make sure they didn’t fall back in the standings and be outside looking in at this week’s regional.
The Dragons finished third in each event and third overall. Richmond won with 106.625. New Castle was a close second with 104.6. The Dragons scored 98.75 and were able to distance themselves from fourth-place Connersville, which finished with 92.95.
“I was really happy. I felt like they did their part and worked really hard that last week when we really got to have practices,” Bruns said.
She said she and her team are realistic about Saturday’s regional, which begins at 1 p.m., and possibilities of advancing to the state meet, which will be held March 13 at Worthen Arena on the Ball State University campus.
Along with Richmond and New Castle, the tournament includes qualifiers from the Columbus East Sectional, Columbus North, Bloomington North and Martinsville. All scored over 104. Columbus North was ranked No. 8 in the final Indiana High School Gymnastics Coaches Poll. Richmond was No. 11 and Bloomington North rounded out the top 15.
The best chances to have a Dragon move on to next week’s state finals is as an individual.
Along with the top three teams advancing to state, the top six in each event and all-around will also move on, as well as, any gymnast that equals or betters the score of the sixth place gymnast at the previous state finals meet (Vault — 9.675; Bars — 9.300; Beam — 9.475; Floor Exercise — 9.475; All-Around — 37.600).
The safe approach is out the window and Bruns said her group will be going all out adding extra difficulty to skills in hopes of performing a state-qualifying routine.
“The girls know we can’t touch teams that are scoring (close to) 108, based on our start values,” Bruns said of the regional competition. “I really stressed in the sectional that it’s about our team. I told them if you work as an individual to get yourself out our team is not going to get through. If you go in and do it for your team, our team will get through and then you’ll have the chance at the regional.
“The regional meet, they know if they are going to make it to state they will have to make it as an individual.”
Bruns said, adding to the difficulty to advance, there are three returning state champions at the Columbus regional.
“They know we’re not going to get out as a team, but we do have a couple of individuals that could place out for state. A lot of it is going to be staying on the beam and not falling off the bars. That’s a big part and they know it,” she said.
Junior Kennedy Garrett has placed well in the regional before. In each of her first two seasons she was one spot away from qualifying. As a freshman, she was seventh in the all-around, only .4 out of sixth.
Last season, she was seventh on the balance beam and only .025 out of making it a three-way tie for fifth place. She was invited to the state meet last year to create the base score for the beam.
“It’s a very deep pool (of quality gymnasts), but she also knows she’s right there,” Bruns said. “I think, for her, that’s going to be good for her knowing she’s right there. She has to be solid and not take any falls.”
Emma Poag is a senior eager to make it on her last attempt. In the Dragons cautious approach to the sectional, Poag tied for fifth in the vault. She was 10th on floor and 12th in the all-around.
Garrett and Poag are New Palestine’s best chances to advance on to the state meet.
“We’ve had two weeks straight of practice, which they haven’t had since Christmas,” Bruns said. “Kennedy Garrett has a new floor skill that’s going to up her start value and Emma is going all out.
“It’s been a long two months. I’m so ecstatic when I look back, ‘this girl’s accomplished her goal and this girl’s accomplished her goal.’ Now, we have one more goal and these kids are really trying. They’ve never given up when they’ve had to be home (quarantined) and frustrated they couldn’t be in the gym improving. It’s neat to see their work ethic come through.”