Girls gymnastics: Scouting this weekend's state finals

The top three-scoring teams this winter will be fighting for the same prize and looking to make school history while doing so this weekend in Palatine.

Downers Grove co-op (144.15), Vernon Hills (143.95) and DeKalb/Sycamore co-op (143.675) posted the top three scores while winning sectionals last week to advance to the IHSA finals beginning on Friday. None has ever won a team state title, but they are the favorites heading into what should be an unpredictable and fun competition.

Prairie Ridge, which has won five of the last seven titles, and Glenbard West, which won the other two during that time frame, are not among the eight-team field this year.

"It's a unique mix of teams and I respect the coaches and the teams that are there, and I'm excited to see what can possibly happen," Trostangs coach Kristyn Campos said. "I never expected to go in with the highest sectional score. It blows my mind. And I know my kids are good kids and great gymnasts, and I know we haven't hit all four events yet, so we know we have the possibility to do better than we've ever done so far."

Sophomore Genevieve Herion's 37.15 in the all-around last Tuesday was the fifth-best score among the four sectionals. Seniors Emily Smetana and Kathryn Snouffer will look to bring home a trophy in their final respective seasons. Smetana contributed to the team score in all four events and Snouffer did so on all but vault while qualifying in the all-around during the sectional. Freshman Kaelyn Landry produced key scores on vault and bars while freshman Emilie Kuchta, junior Madison Piotrowski and senior Natalie Simpson added scores in one event each.

"We're trying to be better," Campos said. "We're not trying to be the best, but we're trying to be the best version of our team so we're in contention for a trophy, and any place we finish will be exciting."

The Trostangs, who took eighth in the state last February, scored a school-record 145.65 on Jan. 24.

If Vernon Hills can find a way to match the 146.7 it scored at state last season, the Cougars will likely bring home a state title. Their season high is also the state's season high at 147.65. Last year they were runners-up but 5-time champion Prairie Ridge co-op was in its own league, scoring a 148.5.

"We're focused on what we're doing and have respect for all the teams and gymnasts at the state meet," Cougars coach Denise Caton said. "We went against all those schools and it could be who has the best day."

Sisters Becca Tran, a senior, and Livy Tran, a sophomore, along with junior teammate Annika Chudy are leading the way. Livy Tran posted the fifth-highest all-around score of 37.20 and Chudy was just ahead of her in fourth at 37.275 while Becca Tran added a 35.375 during the sectional competition last week. Senior Jessica DeLorm contributed three team scores while Christina Raquel's floor routine snagged the team's fourth individual tally.

"It's really about putting the work in and the girls have done it all season," Caton said. "We hit a bit of a slump midseason but the work never stopped. The girls have kept on trucking."

DeKalb-Sycamore co-op will rely on the skill and veteran experience of seniors Leah Benson and Eden Russell and junior Annabella Simpson, whose 36.975 was the eighth best all-around score in the sectionals. DeKalb took third place last year but co-all-around champion Maddy Kees graduated. DeKalb was runner-up in 2016 and 2017.

Behind sophomore all-arounder Sabrina Nemecek, Hersey (142.85) is the fourth sectional title team to automatically qualify for state. Hersey won its only state title nearly 40 years ago in 1984.

Nemecek's 37.45 points were the second-most scored by a gymnast during the sectionals.

Geneva (142.725), which scored a season-best 145 during a quad meet in early December, was the state runner-up in 2015. The Vikings were the top at-large team to qualify.

"It really is exhilarating to see the support and excitement from our school, educators and other Geneva High School sports teams," Vikings coach Kim Hostman said. "I have to commend my team for creating an environment where they have so much joy and passion for what they do, and for one another and pride in representing Geneva at the state meet."

The Vikings used all the scores from the four events from junior Brooke Lussnig and senior Sadie Karlson at the Hinsdale South sectional while freshman Reese Lackey and junior Graci Weems added to the team's total in three events apiece. Sophomore Emma Wiedenhoeft and senior Maura Anderson made an impact in specialty roles. Geneva finished just 1.425 points behind Downers Grove co-op last Tuesday.

Geneva is making its first state appearance since taking second place in 2015.

"We need to be normal, continue to believe, have mental toughness and a whole lot of fun," Hostman said. "Go Vikings!"

Lake Park (142.25) is making its first state appearance since 2017 and fifth overall. The Lancers, whose top finish was taking third in 1991, are bringing an extremely young team. While all-arounders Julia Bartnik and Cali Keefer lead the way, fellow junior Alisia Gnutek and 7 freshmen contributed to their sectional score. Bartnik's 37.425 at sectionals was the third highest-score in the state so she's expected to compete for the all-around state title.

"It's going to be interesting to see where we are in narrow field like this while gaining that experience," Lancers coach Jake Luketin said. "We're hoping to have the best experience while we are there performing well under pressure."

It's already been a great couple weeks for Luketin. He celebrated his birthday on Feb. 8, learned the Lancers qualified for state the next day and then watched his favorite team win the Super Bowl on Sunday.

This week the girls had to share practice space with the boys team, whose season is just getting started. That's what you call a good problem.

"We have this tiny little shoe box gym and it was a cramped space with the boys, but those guys are coming off a second-place finish so they understand how special this is," Luketin said. "We've had amazing positive energy from everyone in there on the boys and the girls side. It's just easy for the girls to come in fired up with positive energy."

Barrington (142.2) joins Hersey and Carmel as the only teams among the field to have a won a state title. The Fillies won in 2000. Junior Annika Patel leads a balanced squad. Patel scored a 35.825 to qualify as an all-arounder as well. Seniors Sofia Rosenzweig and Ember Stennett and juniors Adrianna Merzyn and Sierra Stennett lead this veteran group.

Carmel (141.675) was a three-peat champion in 2010-2012 and has five titles overall as well as a pair of runner-up finishes. The Corsairs, who placed fifth in the state last season, were the final team to qualify this year despite not being at their best during the Stevenson sectional.

"We have an incredibly dedicated group this year, one that would love to shake things up this weekend," Carmel coach Sarah Mikrut Doyle said, "We are rebounding after a tough sectional performance and are grateful that we are getting the chance to do that."

Junior Sarah Arends leads the Corsairs, qualifying as an all-arounder with a 36.325 and on three events. Senior Lilly Bruschuk and junior Julia Bukowski contributed three scores during the sectional while senior Chloe Byrne and freshman Ava Fendel had two key scores apiece. Freshman Alyssah Arenda and senior Emma Haas added to the team's bars score.

Few know what it's like to win state titles in Illinois as both a gymnast and gymnastics coach like Doyle does.

"Winning a state title is such a tremendous accomplishment, and takes an unbelievable amount of hard work and dedication to achieve," she said. "First and foremost, our gymnasts have to stay healthy, so there is a bit of luck that is necessary. Having everyone ready to go, at their very best, on the same day is a feat in itself."

And you've got to believe.

"I have learned that the most important factor in winning a state championship is simply the belief that it can actually be done," she said. "The talent, the skill level will shift every year, but building a culture that believes there is a chance to be at state every year is paramount.

In the all-around competition, Libertyville senior Anna Becker's 37.625 was the best score among the sectionals in the state. Other individuals to watch in the all-around who aren't also in the team competition, include Palatine freshman Jolee Waddington who has the comfort and familiarity of competing at home. Waddington's 37.125 was the seventh best at the sectionals. Glenbard North senior Brooklyn McQuillan had a 36.875 and Glenbrook North senior Betsy Alcorn finished with a 36.775 to round out the Top 10 sectional all-around scores.

The doors open for fans at 1 p.m. both Friday and Saturday with the National Anthem scheduled for 2 p.m. and competition to follow minutes later.

"I hear time and time again from people outside of the sport (that) they had no idea until they saw for themselves, but gymnasts are some of the strongest, most talented and hardworking athletes out there," Doyle said. "These athletes dedicate a huge amount of their life to excel in gymnastics, often pushing their emotional, mental and physical limits to the brink. They deserve to be celebrated for their achievements and the fans are always happy they took the time."

Libertyville's Anna Becker, pictured at the Stevenson sectional last week, had the best all-around score going into the state finals. Gregory Shaver/
  Annika Chudy is one reason Vernon Hills enters this weekend's state finals as one of the teams to beat. Brian Hill/
  Senior Maura Anderson has mad a big impact for Geneva in a specialty role heading into this weekend's state finals. John Starks/
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