By JOHN GORALSKI
It still brings a smile to Kaitlin O’Donnell’s face when she’s asked about last year’s performance by her Lady Knight gymnasts at the New England championship meet.
She remembers the wide-eyed expressions as her young team gathered around her during warm-ups, and the team’s only senior perching helplessly on crutches at the edge of the group. O’Donnell charged her up-and-coming gymnasts to pick up the slack and forget about the fact that they were facing the best teams in the region.
The team responded like a troupe of seasoned veterans.
“We went through a struggle with injuries all season, and it went right through the entire postseason. We had our captain get hurt at the state opens, and that was a career-ending injury,” said the coach. “I remember telling them to just do the best that they can. Nice and easy. No pressure, and that really worked. That New England meet was our best meet of the year.”
And O’Donnell is hoping that it was an early glimpse at this year’s team.
“We have our whole team coming back…plus some,” she said. “We need to just keep building on where we ended, and that’s what we’re trying to do right now.”
Last year’s New England gymnasts have all returned for another crack at the title. An influx of talented underclassmen are hungry to enter the mix. Last year’s injured gymnasts are back and ready to go. Southington is primed to pick up where they left off.
“Our experience is definitely what’s going to carry us through. We have a lot of new kids, but we have a lot of experienced gymnasts returning,” O’Donnell said. “My expectation is to try to hit a little bit better than we did last year. We didn’t hit a meet until New Englands, and I think that can be frustrating at times. For us, the name of the game is to be able to hit this year right from the start.”
It helps to have three senior captains to lead this year’s charge, and Southington’s tri-captains are no strangers to varsity competition. Lexi Rothstein and Marilyn Sporbert were all-around competitors in each of the three postseason meets last year. Both placed in the top 20 at the state open competition, and Rothstein went on to crack the top 20 at the regional event with a runner-up performance on beam. With Sarah Leahy at full strength after last season’s injuries, the program has no shortage of leaders.
“They are a talented group and an experienced group,” O’Donnell said. “All three of them have been competing since they were underclassmen—in leadership positions toward the end of our lineup. They continued to train all year during the summer, and I really expect nothing but good things from all three of them.”
In addition, the Knights return a group of juniors and underclassmen that have already proven themselves in varsity competition. Vickie Castillo, Kayla Birmingham, and Taryn Meenan were all starters in last year’s lineup. Jessie Kane and Hannah Weir were regular contributors as injuries riddled the team.
That experience should pay dividends this year as they take the next step in their development.
“We had injuries all over the place last year, so our underclassmen really had to step up in those first three or four slots,” said the coach. “They definitely gained experience. They did a great job, and I think that gives us the experience we need for this year.”
It won’t be easy. Once again, Glastonbury is expected to be the main obstacle in Southington’s bid for a third straight conference title and back-to-back Class L banners. With their roster of Level 10 club gymnasts, Woodstock Academy is the early favorite at the state open and regional meets, and Daniel Hand should be another ob-stacle in Southing-ton’s bid for a New England berth.
For now, O’Donnell is trying to stay focused on the regular season and bringing her underclassmen up to speed as Southington aims for its third consecutive undefeated regular season.
“Glastonbury is always the tricky spot. That’s always something that we try to prepare for, but we always take it one meet at a time,” she said. “I’m not even thinking about Glastonbury yet or the postseason. I’m thinking about our first meet. I want to get everyone acclimated to competing at this level.”
Last year, Southington finished third in New England on beam, but rule changes have made it more difficult. The Knights relied on a dismount to complete a series of flips on beam. This year, they’ll be forced to stick their landings before the dismount.
“I’m still confident, but it’s just four inches up there,” said O’Donnell. “We had a lot of falls last year, but we had a young team competing. Now they know what to expect, so I hope that we hit a little bit more.”
Vault will continue to be a strength for the Knights as they incorporate more twisting to go with their flips. Starting values have increased across the board by about six tenths per routine, so the potential for higher scores is there.
On floor, the Knights will continue to rely upon clean routines as Southington’s Level 9 gymnasts try to compete alongside Woodstock’s Level 10s.
“Bars is always the questions mark for us. It’s a hard event to start out of a 10.0, and that’s an event that usually doesn’t come together until the end when we’re getting ready to start our postseason,” said the coach. “We lost Kayla Nati, our senior captain, but we gained Sarah Leahy who was out for PCL/MCL surgery. We have a lot more release moves this year, and that’s a big difference. I think that everyone is starting to upgrade, and that’s a big deal.”
On paper, the Knights are still the ones to beat at every regular season meet. With another good run in the postseason, the locals could challenge for medals at the New England meet. With depth, talent, and experience, Southington will continue to offer a show for their fans.
O’Donnell said that she’s excited to get started.
“These girls work really hard every day. They train at other gyms, also,” she said. “They’re a great group. They’re successful, and they’re just amazing to watch. I love to sit back and watch them. They’re a good group of gymnasts.”