By BRIAN JENNINGS
One can argue that Southington saw its best gymnastics team yet when they won their first four Class L state titles consecutively from 2005 to 2008. One might also argue that Southington may have seen their first state open title during that time too, if high school gymnastics started competing at the state open as a team earlier than 2009.
However, the Lady Knights still amassed 11 Class L championship appearances since 2005, including three state open runner-ups, and can be argued as the Class L dynastic ruler in the 2000s.
Last season was just another example of how dominant the program has been in Class L in recent years as the Knights ran through the regular season with an undefeated record of 8-0. They captured their third-straight Class L state title, making it the program’s eighth, before falling short of winning their first ever state open title to Woodstock Academy for the second time. In the past four years, the program also made three straight New England Championship appearances, including a fifth-place finish at the 2015 New England Championships..
“Last season, I think we had a really strong team and a lot of depth,” said Southington coach Kaitlyn O’Donnell. “That showed in our performances. We did the best that we could and finished really strong.”
Since they were sophomores, Lexi Rothstein, Marilyn Sporbert, and Sarah Leahy have been at the forefront of Southington’s recent success.
Rothstein was that all-around gymnast for Southington, who was reliable to post solid, consistent scores week after week in all four events. Rothstein led the Knights in all-around score at the state meet and New England Championships.
“Lexi was a strong all-arounder,” the coach said. “It’s hard to replace someone, who competes all-around. Lexi was definitely a very strong competitor out on the floor. She was the role model, kind of like the mom of the group. She kept everyone together.”
Sporbert was never far behind and stepped in to guide the team whenever Rothstein wasn’t her best, leading the team in all-around score at the sate open.
“Marilyn was really strong on vault, beam, and floor,” said O’Donnell. “I think we’ll definitely miss her floor and vault scores. Marilyn was definitely a really hard worker. So I think having her just motivated the girls.”
You could call Leahy a warrior or simply Ms. Dependable. She battled through major injuries in her senior year, including getting parts of her front teeth knocked out during a bar routine. But that didn’t stop her from missing a single meet throughout the whole season. She offered her best performances of the season where it mattered most with the team’s second-best all-around score at the New England Championships, while also having the team’s third-best all around score at the state open and the team’s fourth-best all-around score at the state meet.
“Sarah was very strong on bars, beam, and floor also,” the Knights coach said. “Sarah definitely brought the humor to the group. She liked to keep everyone in good spirits and make sure they were focused on what we were doing. She went through a lot of injuries in the last two years, especially with the knee surgery and hitting her face. She still competed and I think it was really nice to see her finish out her senior year strong on such a high note.”
The good news for the Knights as they enter the 2015-16 season is that they are only losing three seniors to graduation. Unfortunately, those three seniors are Rothstein, Sporbert, and Leahy.
“They definitely showed leadership out on the competition floor,” said O’Donnell. They’re the last three to go in the lineup, so that was definitely big for us. They brought a lot of consistency and stability to the program. It’s definitely a loss this year not having them around.”
O’Donnell named Jessie Kane as the only team captain for the upcoming season, who is the only returning senior that has been on the team all four years. Kane missed last season to recover from surgery on her ACL.
“I feel as though through her [Kane] four years, she definitely has learned a lot,” the Southington coach said. “She is a good leader. She gets the girls moving and going. I thought she deserved it.”
Although Kane didn’t have the opportunity to compete last season, she still had the opportunity to learn a lot from, as well as work with Rothstein, Sporbert, and Leahy.
“In a way, she [Kane] assisted them and was with them for a long time,” said O’Donnell. “I feel like she brings a sense of stability and hard work to the program. If you ask her to do something, she’s going to do it and get it done. I really like that about her.”
Bars and floor have always been Kane’s go-to events that she has been competing in. Vault has never been Kane’s best event, but it is looking like a strong event for her this year.
Other key returners include senior Victoria Castillo, juniors Kayla Birmingham and Taryn Meenan, and sophomore Rachel Williams. All four return with postseason experience after competing at last year’s state meet, state open, and New England Championships. All four also made last year’s all-conference team.
This is Castillo’s third year with the program as a competitor in vault and beam, but is one of the top beam gymnasts for the Knights, leading the team in the event at the state meet.
Birmingham initially competed in vault, floor, and occasionally beam, but will step into an all-around role.
Meenan has always been an all-arounder for the Knights. O’Donnell said that she thinks they are going to see really big things from her this season, especially confidence-wise towards the end of the lineup. O’Donnell also said that she thinks Birmingham and Meenan will step into leadership roles, especially out on the competition floor.
Williams was on floor and beam as a freshman last year, but will look to try her hand at an all-around as well this year with a lot of potential.
Junior Megan Walsh and sophomore Kat Rothstein are other names that you will see more of this season.
O’Donnell said that depth is one of the major difference that she’s seeing in this years’ team compared to last year’s team.
“When you lose three seniors, who are three all-arounders, it’s really hard to find three more that can hop in,” said O’Donnell. “But because we had so much depth last year, the younger kids are sliding into those positions now. So it’s cool to see the underclassmen transition into those upperclassmen roles. For us, it’s just to do the best that we can as a team and see where it takes us.”
O’Donnell said that consistency and not letting nerves get the best of her girls will be the keys to having a successful season.
“I think it’s just practice. We try to put ourselves in pressure situations when we’re here and we have practice competitions here,” the coach said, referring to their practice site of C.A.T.S. Gymnastics in Cheshire. “The more you compete, the better you get at it. We have a lot of cool floor routines and harder tumbling passes. A lot of the girls last year, who have done more basic tumbling, have started to upgrade.”
O’Donnell said that beam and floor should be the strongest events for the Knights this year, but determination is the one strength that stands out for this particular group.
“I think they’re very determined and that’s something that speaks for everything that we’ve done for the last couple years,” said O’Donnell. “They’re a determined bunch, and if they want to do something, they’re going to do it. We’ve had a successful three years and I have a good group of girls that are working really hard to try to continue on to have another successful season.”