The Fox Valley area's two boys state gymnastics qualifiers are no strangers to each other.
Elgin junior Steve L. Merena and Dundee-Crown freshman Satchel Hudson are part of the same gymnastics club and are coached by Merena's dad, Steve, Sr. Merena noted he's known Hudson for nearly a decade.
Because Elgin and D-C do not have boys gymnastics programs, Merena and Hudson compete as individuals, representing the schools in the IHSA state series.
Both gymnasts will perform on the big stage this weekend at Lincoln-Way East High School in Frankfort. Merena, making his third state finals appearance, will compete in all six individual events (floor, horse, rings, vault, parallel bars and high-bar) and the all-around competition (he scored 52.200 at sectionals, which included a 9.400 on P-bars). Merena, a multiyear Level 10 gymnast, won a sectional title on high-bar. He was an automatic state qualifier in all 6 events.
Hudson, a Level 8 club gymnast with his eye on a Level 10 status in the near future, automatically qualified on rings and vault and earned at-large bids in the all-around competition, parallel bars and high-bar.
The elder Merena said his son benefits from a long gymnastics career and good, old-fashioned hard work.
"Steve has put in a lot of hours," Merena Sr. said. "He loves to perform and enjoys performing in front of crowds."
Right now, parallel bars is Merena's best event. He finished seventh in the state in that event as a sophomore.
"I've added some new tricks. I've added giants and a full dismount," he explained. "The bail is going from a handstand to falling down and then coming back up, that's the giant."
Merena feels his biggest improvement in the event is something he's worked hard to eliminate. "It sounds so simple, but my biggest improvement is not falling off," he said. "I don't fall off as much anymore."
He's also added a new dismount on his high-bar routine. "I'm doing a double pike, which is basically two flips in the air while the legs are straight," said Merena, who has been involved in the sport since he was five.
Without a team, being a school's lone representative can be tough at larger meets, but Merena noted a big thrill for him at the Conant sectional was having the support of other teams while he was competing.
"That was definitely a newer feeling. I liked it a lot," he said. "One of my favorite things in high school competition is the friendships."
Merena agrees with his father about his affinity for performance.
"I definitely like the state finals atmosphere where you are the only one competing at that moment," he said. "That happened to me on floor at sectionals. I was the second-to-last guy up and nobody else was competing. It was pretty cool. Competing in front of a crowd definitely gives me more motivation."
Hudson has been involved with the sport since he was three when he first went to a gymnastics class with his mother at the Dundee Township Park District.
"Satchel has really improved over the years," Merena Sr. said. "He has gone through his adolescence period and has packed on an extra set of muscles. He's very strong and that has allowed him to learn a lot the last couple years."
Hudson, who was recovering from illness earlier in the week, feels his best event is vault.
"It's the easiest for me to score high on," he said.
Hudson has added a piked tsukahara to his vault routine.
"It's when you do a round-off onto the vault table and then do a back flip in a piked position," he explained.
Hudson has made strides on rings thanks to being able to do backward and forward giants, as well as a double back flip dismount. "I'm a little stronger this year," he said.
The ninth-grader is thrilled to be carrying the D-C banner to state.
"This means a lot because I'm the only one at Dundee-Crown who does men's gymnastics," Hudson said. "It's a great way to represent my high school."
Merena and Hudson will be cheering each other on come Friday and Saturday's competition. The all-around and team competitions occur Friday, while individual events take place Saturday. The individual state finals are Saturday night.
"Steve has a really good high-bar and parallel bars routine and a nice pommel horse routine," Hudson noted. "He also has very good form and raw strength. He's strong, strong, strong."
Merena added: "Satchel has matured more and works hard at learning new tricks. He's faster and he's gotten a lot stronger. I'll be cheering him on."
Hudson admits nerves may come into play in his first state finals trip. "I might be a little nervous because it's my first high school state meet and because I'm only one of a handful of freshmen going to state," he said. "To overcome my nerves I have to clear my mind and think about only gymnastics and perform how I practice. I have to keep my routines, clean, be aggressive and dominate."
Merena has his eyes on some return trips to the finals. In addition to parallel bars, he also qualified for the finals last year on high-bar (where he finished ninth).
"I'm hoping to make it to the finals again," he said. "I feel like there are some seniors there who will do really well. I want to give them a challenge. I have to have no form breaks and stick my dismounts."
Merena Sr., a former gymnast at Ohio State, had himself a busy sectional Saturday. He started at the Mundelein sectional coaching Hudson and then left after Hudson's last event to head to Conant to coach his son in that sectional. There was a five-hour time difference between the two sectionals. Merena Sr. added there was no way the two could have been staged at the same time due to the lack of judges in the state.
"They could have backed them up closer to each other and that would have made it harder," he said. "I had plenty of time. It worked out very well for both boys."