By BRIAN JENNINGS
In her first year as head coach of the Lady Knight gymnastics team, Kaitlyn O’Donnell carried just seven gymnasts on her roster. But size didn’t matter, as it was one of the most successful seasons she’s had in her time with the program. Southington finished with a perfect 5-0 regular season record and went on to win their sixth Class L title.
The Knights are coming into the 2016-2017 season with a similar, depleted lineup for the first time since O’Donnell’s first year, returning just half of their 14 gymnasts from last year’s squad. No freshmen joined the team for the upcoming season.
But according to O’Donnell, size won’t stop the team from contending for a state title this time either.
“As long as you have enough bodies to compete that are solid, it’s okay,” said O’Donnell. “It’s just not having that depth that we had last year. If someone is sick or there is an injury, you don’t have a lot of kids to pull from.”
Southington’s roster sizes have gone through waves and cycles in recent years, having a similar effect on its state titles along the way. Since 1970, the Knights have won eight CIAC Class L titles. Four of those eight titles came between 2005 and 2008, with three of the other four coming between 2013 and 2015.
“When you look at the stats in the gymnastics program, there’s three or four years where the numbers were really high,” the coach said. “Then it dwindles down a little bit. It starts to pick up, then it goes down a little. With a lot of sport programs, it kind of just happens over time.”
Having a healthy, limited roster might be tough maintain throughout the season, but in a sense, O’Donnell said that it brings the team a little closer together.
“We’re all here for one reason: to accomplish our goals,” the coach said. “I think the girls are starting to come together as one team. With a lot of numbers, sometimes it’s hard. It’s a different dynamic this year, and it’s cool to see.”
Southington produced a fourth-straight undefeated regular season last year, posting a record of 7-0. The Knights also claimed their fourth-straight CCC title and CCC Valentine Invitational title, placing first out of six teams with a score of 135.4 at Farmington Valley Gymnastics in Plainville. Glastonbury (134.05) finished as runner-up.
Southington finished as runner-up at the Class L championship—held at Pomperaug High School—for the first time since 2012 after capturing three-straight Class L titles, falling to Greenwich (140.425) by 5.975 points.
“Of course, we wanted to go for the fourth-straight title, but second place wasn’t bad,” said O’Donnell. “As a team, we knew we weren’t going to beat Greenwich, but we wanted to try and get as close as possible as we could to them. We had almost a perfect meet for us, and I couldn’t have been any happier.”
The Knights just missed qualifying as a team for the state open by one tenth of a point, but still managed to send four individual gymnasts to compete. Woodstock Academy (147.3) edged out Greenwich (140.4) by 6.9 points to achieve their fifth-straight open title.
The Knights lost six gymnasts to graduation, including Vicky Castillo. Castillo led the team on beam for most of last year, finishing tenth at the open. Senior Hannah Weir competed on bars at last year’s state meet, but will not be returning to the team this season.
Returners include seniors Kayla Birmingham, Taryn Meenan, and Megan Walsh; juniors Kat Rothstein, Jen Thai, and Rachel Williams; and sophomore Mychele Vaillancourt. Birmingham and Meenan have been named as the team captains to lead the Knights this season.
“I watched the two of them step up as juniors and lead the team,” said O’Donnell. “I was really impressed by their leadership, which made it an easy decision to have them lead the team this year. They’ve been leaders since their freshman years, so their leadership just gets stronger each year.”
Meenan led Southington on vault, bars, and floor at the state meet and on vault and bars at the open. Birmingham led the team on floor at the open and competed at the state meet.
Like Meenan, Williams competed all-around at the state meet and open as well. Rothstein tied Meenan for Southington’s top score on beam at the state meet.
New additions to this year’s team include senior Victoria Verrilli and junior Isabella DiFusco.
Although certain gymnasts focused on and fine-tuned their skills for certain events last year, O’Donnell said that every girl on this year’s roster will most likely be competing all-around.
“Hard work does pay off,” the coach said. “I don’t want to say that winning isn’t important, but doing your best and accomplishing the goals that we set as a team is important as well. That’s something that we’ve taken from last year. Seeing how determined they are to accomplish this year’s goals is exciting to see.”
Floor is usually always a good event for the Knights, but don’t count out vault either.
“We have the hardest difficulty on those two events,” said O’Donnell. “Kayla and Rachel have really upgraded their tumbling, which makes us really competitive in those events. We’ll be okay on beam too. We just have jitters that get in the way sometimes.”
Bars gave Southington trouble last season, but O’Donnell said that the Knights could be swinging for better scores this season.
“The girls trained over the summer, and Kayla has improved her bar routine,” the coach said. “We’re working on it, but if you look at bar scores, in general, they’re always pretty low. It’s the hardest event to really get a 10-off-start value on.”
O’Donnell is entering her fifth year as head coach of the Lady Knight gymnastic team.
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