By BRIAN JENNINGS
For the most part, they’re newer and younger. But they’re still experienced gymnasts, and they seem like they’re meshing well with one another.
From the seven practices they’ve had thus far, they’ve been able to cheer each other on, even though they don’t know each other yet.
“Right now, we’re kind of in the honeymoon phase where we’re learning about everyone and seeing what everyone else can do,” said Southington coach Kim Vaillancourt, who is taking over for Kaitlyn O’Donnell after her five years of service. “We’ve been doing a lot of team bonding activities, just letting them be with each other a little bit.”
With a new coach and new facility, it drew a large influx of new gymnasts. That could make for an interesting season.
“Most of them have been doing gymnastics for a while,” said Vaillancourt. “So, they can actually help each other out when it comes to what’s supposed to be there and what’s not supposed to be there. The returning kids can give a glimpse of what it is to be on the high school team.”
The Lady Knights finished last year’s regular season undefeated for the fifth-straight year at 7-0 (3-0 home, 4-0 away), beating out Glastonbury to win the CCC with an average score of 133.07. In the postseason, they placed fourth at the Class L championship and didn’t qualify as a team for the state open for the first time since the 2000-01 season, advancing four gymnasts to the state open with at least one gymnast in all four events.
Vaillancourt said that it’s going to take a lot of hard work to get back to the level of qualifying as a team for the state open.
“You really have to train all year for gymnastics. You’re not training for high school all year, but you’re training all year,” said Vaillancourt. “You just have to hope that the girls coming out for the team have the skill level, in order to compete with the teams that are in our Class L division because there are some good ones out there.”
The team will be competing closer to home. This year, home meets will be at American Gymnastics in Plantsville. That should make it easier for Southington fans.
“The facility we have at American Gymnastics has a lot more availability towards training those harder skills without injury because we have soft landings in a lot of different spots in the gym,” said the coach.
Vaillancourt said that she hopes having a better facility will help facilitate better gymnastics. However, that shouldn’t be a tough get, seeing as though most of Southington’s gymnasts have been training with their club teams at American for some time now and are pretty familiar and comfortable with the surroundings.
“We’re not going to be as scared to do the skills we need to do,” said Vaillancourt. “We have the extra equipment and space to set up the certain drills that you need, in order to make sure that these skills are safe and competed properly.”
The Knights lost four gymnasts to graduation after last season. Two of those four gymnasts were all-conference and all-state and competed at last year’s state open, while one competed at the state meet.
Coming into this season, the Knights are returning just four gymnasts from last year’s squad, including seniors Katarina Rothstein, Jennifer Thai, and Rachel Williams; and junior Mychele Vaillancourt.
Rothstein competed on bars, beam, and floor at last year’s state meet, scoring highest on floor (8.35). She also competed on bars and beam at the state open, scoring highest on beam (8.55). She was the only gymnast to represent Southington on bars.
“She’s looking good so far, and I’m expecting big things from her,” said Vaillancourt. “It is her senior year, and I know she wants to have a great, successful year. I know she’s working through a couple of injuries, so we’re going to make sure that she stays healthy, scores well, and gets where she wants for her goals this year.”
Williams was the only Lady Knight to compete all-around at last year’s state meet, scoring highest on beam (8.9). At the state open, she competed on beam and floor, scoring highest on beam (8.925).
Williams is a gymnast at American where Vaillancourt has been working with her since she was two years old.
“She has gotten so much better over the past summer. So, I expect great things from her,” said Vaillancourt. “She’s a great all-around gymnast. She’s tries hard with what she does and is a good motivator when it comes to getting the kids in the right spirit.”
Thai competed on bars at last year’s state meet.
After there were no incoming freshmen for last year’s team, this year’s team is welcoming in seven freshmen to the program, including Elizabeth Beaulieu, Alexa Caron, Haley Derwin, Kaylin Leifert, Morgan Ramsay, and Natalie Reeves. Freshman Megan Connelly attends Sacred Heart Academy in Hamden and will be competing with the Knights this season as a solo gymnast.
Without these seven freshmen, Southington would have had to use the scores from all four of their returning upperclassmen at every meet without having the luxury of dropping lower scores.
As far as the events the gymnasts will be competing in for the upcoming season, Vaillancourt said that she is still going through her charts to see how she can put routines together to change what her girls are currently competing in, in order to help benefit high school competition.
“Almost all of them compete in USA Gymnastics, but their routines for their clubs aren’t totally compatible with high school,” said Vaillancourt. “So, we have to make adjustments and see where we can fix things.”
Rothstein and Williams were named as team captains for the upcoming season.
After a new realignment of the CCC, Southington’s conference opponents haven’t changed, which include Farmington, Glastonbury, Hall, RHAM, and Wethersfield.
The gymnastics program will experience a few major changes coming into the upcoming season, but the biggest change of them all is the new hire of Kim Vaillancourt as head coach. Vaillancourt is taking over for Kaitlyn O’Donnell, who held a spotless 33-0 regular season record and won three Class L titles in her five years with the program, including a pair of state open runners-up and a Class L runner-up.
Vaillancourt has been coaching for over 27 years now and will be at American Gymnastics for 20 years this coming February.
Vaillancourt may be coming into the program for her first season, but this is nothing new to her. She attended Southington High School and was a member of their gymnastics team as a competitor for 13 years. She was also the head coach of Southington’s gymnastics program from 1996 to 1998.
Since her departure from coaching at Southington, Vaillancourt has worked with gymnasts from level three all the way up to level 10. She’s helped with college submissions for gymnasts, conducted preschool gymnastics classes, and has been to gymnastics clinics. She also has been a USA Gymnastics member for over 20 years.
When Vaillancourt coached the Knights in the ‘90s, she was closer to the ages of her gymnasts. She said that her gymnasts respected her, but it was a little harder to coach then than it is to coach now.
Vaillancourt learned how to start designing routines because it was early on in her gymnastics coaching career. Now 20 years later, she’s doing a lot of the stuff that she didn’t get to do then and is gauging where her gymnasts are going to be a little better so that she can point them in the direction of where they’ll be most successful.
“I feel a lot more accomplished and ready to go this time,” said Vaillancourt. “I have a lot more knowledge of how all the skills are broken down and how to look at each kid individually to get the best skill out of them, whether it is the highest skill or just a really clean skill, so that way they’re safe.”
Although she has been out of coaching at the high school for almost 20 years now, Vaillancourt said that she’s wanted to come back to coaching for the past few years. It’s not that she wanted to overstep O’Donnell, but she missed it.
“It’s a different dynamic of coaching. It’s team oriented,” said Vaillancourt. “When it comes to club gymnastics, it’s very individual-based. Yes, we have our team awards and we try to go for team, but the team camaraderie is so much more in high school than it is for club gymnastics.”
Vaillancourt said that her mindset for this year’s team is to play to the girls’ strengths and to try to get as close to the team’s 10.0 star value as they can.
“High school gymnastics is very hard,” said Vaillancourt. “Most of the time, we don’t have the higher-level athletes coming from the clubs because they need the extra training in the club. So, it’s not really conducive for high school, unfortunately.”
Vaillancourt said that she is planning on designing the routines with her girls, making sure that they’re at their optimal. When it comes to the top four they need for team scores in meets, Vaillancourt said that she will make sure their best of the best is in that top four. That doesn’t mean that other girls that aren’t in the top four won’t get a chance because you compete with six.
“It may not be perfect or always beautiful,” said Vaillancourt. “But this way, we’re, at least, giving the team effort.”
In her time as head coach of Lady Knight gymnastics, Vaillancourt said that she hopes the program can grow.
“I know that 10 is actually pretty good for gymnastics in Southington or anywhere,” said Vaillancourt. “I’m just hoping that we can maybe draw in a few more of those club kids after they see how we’re doing and see how we’re changing the way we’re doing it a little bit, so that way, they could maybe actually come in and compete.”
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