by John Goralski
Kayla Nati crashed into the vault and tumbled to the floor in a tangled heap, and Southington’s hopes for a top five finish at the New England championship meet seemed to evaporate as their junior captain clutched at her ankle and knee while blood poured from her nose like a faucet.
It looked like the team’s day was over before it got started. On Saturday, March 8, Nati was whisked away to the trainer’s table as her teammates tried to regroup. One thing was certain. Their day was over.
…Or was it?
“I was really proud of all of them, but we bounced back,” Coach Kaitlyn O’Donnell said about her team’s reaction to the injury. “Honestly, I think that every single person on our team has some sort of injury at this point of the season, but they pulled it together at the end. We just bounce back and keep going.”
Southington was already at a disadvantage. As the No. 2 team from Connecticut, they were forced to compete alongside the runners-up while the four state open champions from Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire battled in a different rotation.
Who was leading? How were the Knights stacking up individually? How were they ranked as a team? Those were all questions that would have to wait until the end. An injury would trouble any team, but for Southington it could have been disastrous.
“All the other teams were quite big, and that’s one thing that sort of gives us a disadvantage right from the start,” said O’Donnell. “We only have seven kids, but the others have a lot of numbers. There was a lot of good gymnastics this weekend, and we did the best we could. It was a close meet, and it was really anyone’s game.”
The Knights responded with the second highest vault score at the meet. Sarah Leahy scored an 8.83, and Lexi Rothstein scored an 8.95. Marilyn Sporbert cracked the top 30 with a 9.0, and Erin Malone capped the event with a well-executed Yurchenko Layout—a round-off onto the springboard, a back handspring, and a twisting layout.
With a 9.6, Malone captured a New England title in the event. Southington scored 36.375 points as a team.
“It was our best event even without Kayla’s vault,” said O’Donnell. “I think that, if we had her score we probably would have even gone up a whole point. We had to go without her score, but the other girls really stepped up. Lexi went for her harder vault and made it. Marilyn did a really nice vault. Everyone did a great job.”
So when Nati returned to her teammates, chalked her hands, and limped to the bars, it was the final piece of the puzzle. Southington scrambled for fourth place in the event with a 35.15. Once again, Malone (9.65) captured the best score in the event. Once again, Rothstein (8.5) and Sporbert (8.4) contributed, and Nati earned the second highest score for the team with an 8.6.
“Kayla didn’t really get to warm up because she was over getting her knee and ankle looked at, but she went right in and did an awesome job,” said O’Donnell. “This was our most consistent bar day of the year, and that made me really happy. We were really clean, and everyone stuck their landings. That kind of made a big difference.”
The momentum carried over to beam where the Knights claimed the fourth highest score (35.325) with just one fall in six routines. Malone (9.33) tied for fifth overall. Rothstein (8.95), Nati (8.6), and Lindsey Socquet (8.45) scored.
Southington placed third on floor with a 34.875. Malone (9.28) tied for second overall. Sporbert (8.9) finished 15th in the individual standings, and Rothstein (8.4) and Sarah Leahy (8.3) contributed to the final team score.
Barnstable, Mass. (145.875) edged Woodstock Academy (145.625) for the top spot. Sharon, Mass. (143.875) finished third overall, and Southington moved into fourth place with a 141.725.
“Fourth place isn’t bad,” said O’Donnell. “We weren’t going out there expecting to win. We wanted to improve on our last meet, and we did that. I was very proud of them. They’ve come so far this season just from January to now. They’ve each made huge improvements, and it showed.”
With her performance, Malone leapfrogged over every gymnast in the top rotation to become the third Lady Knight to score a New England title in the all-around competition and the first since 2006.
Her score of 37.85 out of 40 possible points eclipsed her closest competitor by more than half a point, and Malone became just the second Lady Knight gymnast to sweep the all-around title at each of the three postseason meets.
“I think she deserves it. She works really hard,” O’Donnell said. “You’re not used to this from club gymnastics because nobody competes this often. Every week, after each meet, you have to pull yourself together and regroup for the next meet. Especially with three championship meets in a row this is difficult because those are three pressure meets in a row. It’s back to back to back, and I’m so proud of her.”
The meet marks the end of the winter campaign, but O’Donnell said that she expects it to be a turning point for the Knights as they look to regain their position as the top team in the region. Malone is the only senior, so O’Donnell has high expectations for the coming year.
“We need to build on this,” she said. “I always say that we have to build on every single meet, but now it’s every season. Every year we have to build upon this. I think that this is the start of a good program.”
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