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Cretin-Derham Hall found a coach — and gymnastics success — in a hurry

Cretin-Derham Hall's gymnastics team had won just once in two years before this season.

On Friday, that team will compete in its first gymnastics state tournament in 14 years.

A lot happened in between, and it happened quickly.

State tournament teams in any sport are a testament to hard work and dedication, with a healthy dollop of good fortune. But first, Cretin-Derham Hall needed a coach. Previous coach Nicole Lawver was moving out of state. Her only assistant, Claire Pritchard-Gutknecht, had been with the team for two years but didn't feel she was prepared to be a head coach. She didn't have the certification required by the Minnesota State High School League to be a head coach. And she had just begun her career as an attorney.

The search for a new coach proved fruitless as the season got closer. Pritchard-Gutknecht felt pangs of guilt for leaving girls she'd gotten close to without a coach. "I started to feel like I couldn't let them down," she said.

So Pritchard-Gutknecht took the job just days before the season began, then got to work, fast-tracking her coaching certification requirements.

High-level additions

There was still the matter of landing an assistant coach or two.

The mother of a team member came to the rescue, using her gymnastics connections to entice former Gophers gymnast Jonda Hughes (1993-97) and Anja Mundahl, a former Level 10 club gymnast, to step back onto the mats. Hughes, who was Jonda Hammons when she competed for the Gophers, had been away from gymnastics since graduating.

"I got a call from Carrie Cunnington saying they needed some coaches. I decided it was my time to get back into the sport," Hughes said.

With new coaches leading the way, the team needed athletes. Officially, the program is a cooperative with Mounds Park Academy and Minnehaha Academy. No Minnehaha Academy students were involved last season, but at a track meet last spring, junior Delaney Cunnington, who attends Mounds Park, recognized Leah DiNardo from her club gymnastics past. "I thought I'd reach out to her. The worst she could say was, 'No,' " Cunnington said.

The timing was perfectly serendipitous. "I had no idea we even had gymnastics at Minnehaha," said DiNardo, a junior. "I was thinking about quitting club, but I wasn't sure. What would I do? Then I got her text and I was like, 'This is kind of nice.' "

DiNardo brought along senior Kana Try. Both were high-level club gymnasts.

"The first day was a little daunting because we didn't know anyone, but everybody was really welcoming," Try said. "And we loved our coaches. All three of them were really supportive, so it wasn't that big of a deal."

Next, with a pair of assistant coaches with high-level gymnastics backgrounds to lean on, Pritchard-Gutknecht turned her attention to oversight. She familiarized herself with the voluminous MSHSL gymnastics rulebook. She stressed a team-first concept and made a point of lowering the stifling expectations that often accompany club gymnastics.

"Give it your all, have fun. That's kind of it. It's all we do,'' Cunnington said.

The results soon showed.

Cretin-Derham Hall, which didn't win a single meet two seasons ago and managed just one victory last year, scored six points higher in its first meet of the season than in any meet the year before. Improvement continued, and the team finished the regular season at No. 7 in the Class 2A team rankings.

New coaches and new athletes made a difference, and so did the team's sense of community.

"I think we're all just a lot closer this year," junior Zoe Ewald said.

Teammate Ava Bartsh nodded in agreement. "We come in here every day with a positive mindset and know we have to push each other to do our absolute best," Bartsh said. "We really prioritize just having fun and doing our best."

Rolling into state

The Raiders carry their season-long momentum into the state meet. They had their best showing of the season in the Section 4 meet with a team score of 147.00, the second-best score to come out of the section meets, behind only No. 1-ranked Lakeville South's 147.525 in Section 1.

Cunnington won the all-around title with a career-high 38.2, and three other Raiders — DiNardo, Try and Anna Lentz — finished in the top seven.

Pritchard-Gutknecht is both amazed and grateful that a season that could have gone so wrong has turned out so right.

"They show up," she said of her team. "They show up academically — their top-eight cumulative GPA is over a 3.8. That's insane. They show up physically, pushing themselves to better some aspect of their gymnastics at every meet. And most importantly, they show up for each other — they cheer each other up after hard days and they work hard to keep positivity infused in every practice, meet and event. I don't know what good thing I did in a past life to have karma good enough to put me in the path of this team, but I am thankful every day to have had the opportunity."