By John Goralski
As her coach counted down the final seconds of practice, Kayla Nati’s foot slipped off the beam, and she ricocheted to the floor in a tangled heap. Southington’s young gymnasts stared in horror as their only senior clutched at her foot and fought back her tears.
On Saturday, March 8, the Lady Knights entered the State Open meet as the third ranked squad. With trainers and coaches circling Southington’s senior co-captain, their hopes of an upset, a state open title, and a New England berth seemed to vanish as quickly as the officials signaled the start of the meet.
“I think it affected our performance a lot,” said Lady Knight coach Kaitlyn O’Donnell. “I think it really threw off the girls first event. That was our third person warming up, so we had to kind of rearrange ourselves right there to go on. We had a teammate on the side hurt. We were trying to take care of her, but we also had to start the meet. I think it distracted us a little bit.”
Southington’s juniors never missed a beat. Lexi Rothstein shrugged off her own injury to score a 9.05 on beam. Marilyn Sporbert shrugged off her own nagging injuries, to match Rothstein on the beam.
“It was extremely nerve-racking when we saw her fall,” said Sporbert. “When she wasn’t able to get back up, I think people started to freak out a little bit. We just tried to stay calm.”
Over the next three events, Rothstein and Sporbert jockeyed at the top of the team’s scoring as the Knights tried to hold on to their position in the team standings. Sporbert scored a 9.0 on floor. Rothstein followed with an 8.975 on vault and an 8.85 on bars.
Sporbert finished with Southington’s highest all-around score (35.425) but Rothstein finished right behind her (35.35). Nati limped back into the gym on crutches for the final two events to find the juniors leading next year’s roster.
“Kayla’s our senior captain, and she was gone for over half the meet,” O’Donnell said. “That took her leadership away from the team, too, so I loved to see the juniors step up a bit and try to take over and calm everybody’s nerves.”
“Coming into the meet, my goal was to just do what I could as best as I could,” said Sporbert. “I still had some flaws here and there, but I think I did well. The fact that Kayla was hurt pushed me even more.”
Woodstock Academy (150.5) ran away with the team title, breaking the 150-point barrier for the first time since Southington’s record setting years from 2005-2007. Daniel Hand (142.7) held on to second place, but the Knights (137.65) edged Trumbull (135.425) for third place. That was good enough to advance the Knights into the New England meet.
“I told them that wherever we placed, I’d be happy with them because whenever you have circumstances like that thrown at you it comes down to how well you recover,” O’Donnell said. “I told them I’d be happy with whatever they did, but I’m really proud of them make it and to sneak into third place.”
Sophomore Vicky Castillo (34.275) scored in all four events. Freshman Taryn Meenan (32.6) proved to be the fourth score in all four events with Nati’s absence. Kayla Birmingham, Sarah Dolan, and Jessica Kane each contributed with early routines to boost Southington’s scores.
“I figured it would be pretty tight,” said the coach. “I knew that we’ve competed without one of our best people before, so I knew we could do it. We just had to focus to do it. That’s a little harder to do in a championship meet than a regular season meet, but they did it.”
Now, the Knights will take on the best teams in the region at the New England championships this weekend at Algonquin Regional High School in Northborough, Mass. Southington will compete in the first session at 10 a.m. with the third place qualifiers and individuals. Woodstock and Hand will compete at 1:30 p.m.
“For us, it’s just about regrouping this week,” said O’Donnell. “I want us to go out there and finish strong since it’s our last meet.”
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