Perhaps the biggest difference between club and high school gymnastics is that club focuses on the individual while high school emphasizes team.
That team effort, along with talent and depth, has resulted in beyond a doubt the best gymnastics season in Tri-Cities history as Geneva will compete in this weekend's IHSA state finals for the first time in program history, along with St. Charles co-op, which will make its fifth appearance.
A gymnastics team is allowed five gymnasts in each of the four events and it counts its top four scores in each event. Technically, a team could compete with only four athletes. That's not the route either of these squads have taken though as they are relying on the contributions of many, including several gymnasts who are focusing on a single event or two.
St. Charles coach Amy Lill never panicked when one of her top all-arounders, Sidney Copeland, went down with an injury just before the state series. Instead, she made some alterations to the lineup, using just two all-arounders along with seven specialists to win the Glenbard West sectional.
"I think it showed a lot about our team that they were still able to band together and win the sectional," she said. "They know that every girl counts, every girl needs to step up and that the first score is just important as the last girls."
Freshman Rachel Dugan and junior Kelly Gorniak are the two all-arounders for St. Charles. Senior Jesi Ortiz (vault, floor) and Alix Scherer (beam, floor) and juniors Cathryn Gotlund (vault, beam) and Sierra Theisse (bars, floor) are two-event specialists, while seniors Andrea Schwartz and Sidney Olson are key members of the bars team. Freshman Sam Upshaw was a beam specialist during the sectional, but junior Courtney Buoy will take her spot on Friday.
"I think what's unique about this team is that we don't just rely on one or two gymnasts," Lill said. "Yeah, we're getting big scores from our 1-2 (all-arounders) but we're getting big scores from girls on one or two events as well. Andrea Schwartz is focusing only on bars and she's throwing a 9.1 or 9.2 and that's a huge score for us."
Having depth does have a price tag though, namely sleeplessness and tough decisions.
"At times it's difficult to determine who should do what event so the lineup is never set up, there's multiple versions of it," Lill said. "It's all about maximizing the best score and really challenging them with the amount of talent and potential they have and then putting us in the best position as a team."
Depth proved crucial when Copeland went down with an ACL injury.
"In prior years if we lost one of our top girls it would prove devastating," Lill said. "We've been very fortunate. I honestly wish we could have six girls compete (each event) rather than five. So it's kind of like I'm putting the puzzle pieces in the correct order so we can be most successful."
Dugan will also battle in the individual competition in the all-around, floor, bars and vault, while Gorniak (floor), Gotlund (beam) and Ortiz (floor) also are in the individual finals.
Geneva junior Dominique Brognia and senior Ashley Puff knew they would be competing at state as individuals, as both qualified in the all-around and multiple events. Brognia only missed out on bars while Puff will also perform on vault and floor.
What they didn't know was whether they'd sneak in as an at-large team. They received an unforgettable text from coach Kim Hostman late Thursday night.
"I felt like we had a 50/50 chance on going so we really didn't know if we'd get in," Puff said. "We know Lyons and Prairie Ridge are probably going to go 1-2, but the rest of the teams I'm not so sure. It's just incredible to be going and to have a chance of a third place trophy or something like that would make it even more fun."
Freshman McKenna Merges also competes in the all-around for the Vikings, who also rely on specialization. The Ginsberg sisters combine for an all-around in the sense that Jenna is a vaulter and Grace works beam, floor and bars. Sophomore Megan Beitzel focuses on vault and bars and junior Claire Scatterday is committed solely to beam and floor.
"There's been a fantastic energy around school for them and I'm telling them to have fun and enjoy the moment," Hostman said. "I told them anything can happen so stay focused and have fun."
The Vikings only added minimal skills this week while doing a lot of reps in practice. Their hope is to have their routines polished before taking the big stage in Palatine. The Vikings peaked at their own regional with a 146.275 and hope to duplicate that success.
"We're just focusing on connections, keeping relaxed and reaching that mental high point," Hostman said. "If they do that they should have a great state meet and experience."
One thing that will be new for Geneva and St. Charles alike is a packed gym. Traditionally both sides of the large bleachers are overcrowded with fellow gymnasts, family, friends and others in the gymnastics community.
"It's going to be an eye-opening experience for them," Puff said. "But the thing is, the pressure isn't really on us anymore. We felt it at sectional because we were trying to get to state. Now that we're here, there are no more steps. We've just have to go in with a lot of energy and have fun."
And create unforgettable memories.