By John Goralski
Kaitlyn O’Donnell waved off the official and put an arm around her senior captain. “This will be Kayla Nati’s last floor routine at this gym,” said the Southington coach.
For four years Nati has been the blue collar workhorse for the Knights. Since she was a child, she had been performing before crowds at the Cheshire gym. Nati isn’t usually the one to grab the spotlight or shatter records on Connecticut’s storied high school team, but the four-year varsity gymnast has been the central figure in Southington’s return to prominence.
As the only Lady Knights senior, it seemed fitting that Nati finally had the stage to herself.
“This meet was really just about Kayla today and the four years that she’s given to this team,” said O’Donnell. “I honestly think that she is the one that brought this team together. As a two year captain, she’s always done her best to get everyone involved. Even with the teams of one [that travel and compete with the Knights], she’s trying to get them to be a part of everything. At the end of the season, that’s so important. You can see it helping us.”
The score didn’t really matter, although Southington dispatched North Haven easily, 139.85-107.75. The undefeated season was never in doubt, but the meet capped a 14-0 rally to give the Knights perfect back-to-back regular seasons for the first time since their five year dynasty from 2005-2010.
One of their starters was out of the lineup. Another one was still rehabbing from injuries with a modified routine. Despite the bumps and bruises, the Knights still flirted with a 140 point team score, and that’s a testament to Southington’s depth and growth through the regular season.
“My expectations are high, but I don’t really focus on the numbers,” said the coach. “I want us to come together as a team and do our personal best. We need to concentrate on hitting our routines and cleaning up the little problem parts. If we can do that, that’s where we’ll get our scores.”
Marilyn Sporbert is still smarting from injuries, but she returned to the all-around lineup and led all gymnasts with a 35.8. Sporbert scored the top result on vault (9.3) and floor (9.1), and that’s a good sign as the Knights prepare to defend their Class L title. Nati did her part with the top score on bars (8.75) and beam (8.9) with the second highest score of the day (35.5).
Southington’s underclassmen held their own, too. Sophomore Vicky Castillo continued her rise through the ranks with the third highest all-around score (35.5). Freshman Taryn Meenan (33.8) has become a key to the Lady Knight depth.
But with Lexi Rothstsein missing from the final competition, it opened up opportunities for Southington’s up-and-comers. Kayla Birmingham (vault, beam, floor), Sarah Dolan (vault), Jessie Kane (bars, floor), and Hannah Weir (beam) each rose to the challenge with the early routines that help raise the bar for the final four scores.
“As a team, we’re starting to come together. I think our all-arounders are starting to step it up, and our specialists are starting to step it up in their individual events,” O’Donnell said. “We’ve had some highs. We’ve had some lows, but I think we’re on a good path toward states. I’m really proud of the way that this team has come together and overcome some of the obstacles that we’ve faced.”
Will that be enough to secure the team’s seventh state title since 2005? With a 139.46 average, Southington is the highest seeded team for the upcoming Class L competition, but they are ranked third behind Woodstock Academy (146.85) and Hand (140.14) in the state open rankings. Can the Knights upset one of them to return to the New England championships?
Those are the only questions that matter now.
“Postseason comes down to how bad the team wants it,” said O’Donnell. “That’s how I look at it. If the team goes out and fights for it, they’ll be able to overcome whatever comes at them. In the postseason, you have to be prepared for anything. Last year, we had 13 falls on beam, but we came back and overcame it. Every year’s different, so you never know what this year will bring.”
Let the fun begin…
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By John Goralski