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GYMNASTICS: Howard County 2024 season preview

Jan. 18—The new gymnastics season is taking shape with full squads at Northwestern and Western, and an individual lining up for Kokomo.

After the Logansport pairs meet two weekends ago, most of last weekend's action was a winter weather washout, so for the Tigers and Panthers the season hits stride this weekend with the Harrison Invitational on Saturday. Kokomo's Megan Leavitt has participated in meets the last two weekends.

Here's a look at the Howard County high school gymnastics squads as they get moving and prepare for the postseason, which begins the last weekend in February.

WESTERN

The Panthers have seven gymnasts on the squad including five seniors —Shelby Conaway, Berkeley Woolley, Dani Dalpoas, Madison Mansfield, and Ava Wenger, who is new to the squad after diving previously. Joining them are sophomore Riley McLaughlin and freshman Riley Van Ness.

"What I'm most excited for this group is they're still there, they're still doing it, and we go out every single meet, we're laughing and joking, we're there to have fun. These kids have a lot of talent but they've also got a lot of heart," Western coach Jenny Zirkle said. At some meets, there may be as many as "12 teams and they're serious. My group is laughing and smiling. When things happen, my group is really good about laughing it off, and they support each other really well."

They've needed to. Injuries have made a major impact on the squad the previous three seasons and strengthened the team's bonds. For instance, Woolley for much of multiple seasons but kept coming out to practice to be around her friends and to help them.

"Their attitude is why they're all still there. The ability to work together and support each other," Zirkle said. "They have stories about togetherness in the sport rather than just stories about the sport."

Now healthier to start the season, Zirkle is enthused about what's possible.

"I think my biggest surprise for this year, Berkeley Woolley has been out with injury [previously]. She's had a torn labrum, she's broken her foot. She's had severe elbow issues. She's been out off and on for two seasons," Zirkle explained. "She did beam for three meets her junior year. She's come back this year, she's competing all four events again. It's kind of her farewell tour. She's actually performing this year better than I've ever seen her perform, especially on floor and beam. She's going to do some pretty cool things this year.

"[Conaway], she's come back. She's kind of powering through [previous ankle injuries]. I think my impression of the group so far is their determination to just power through with it."

Western was sixth at the Lafayette Jeff Sectional last season with Conaway, McLaughlin and Dalpoas seeing action in that meet. Zirkle expects McLaughlin to take a leap this season.

"I think she kind of held herself back last year being new into the high school scene," Zirkle said of McLaughlin. "She is now working skills for me and she's getting those skills. I'd expect to see her at least at regionals and perhaps at state with these skills."

Zirkle expects the Panthers to make an impact despite a difficult sectional.

"We have the hardest sectional in the entire state," Zirkle said. The Jeff Sectional has 17 teams this season, more than any other sectional. "Last year our goal was to show up at sectional and have enough athletes to compete, given the injuries we had last year. This year our goal is top five at sectionals, and I think that's an achievable goal. And individually, I think we'd like to see a couple get out to regionals."

NORTHWESTERN

The Tigers have six gymnasts in the fold and a new coach in Jessica Baker. The team is made up of juniors Taylor Schmitt and Samara Sims, sophomores Emma Baker and Karsyn Schoolman, and freshmen Anna Cobble and Lauren Fischer. Schmitt, Emma Baker and Fischer are also divers on the swim squad.

"The girls, all of them, have come from club gymnastics so they have a pretty good background and they came into the sport with a lot of skills, which is important in the gymnastics world," Jessica Baker said. "It's a positive thing that all these girls have had quite a few years in club."

A former Delta gymnast, Jessica Baker is a teacher in the Northwestern system and has Camie Fischer as an assistant. She likes the capabilities of her athletes.

"You're familiar with Taylor Schmitt," she said. "She's a great all-around athlete and it carries over to gymnastics. She's a great all-around gymnast. She's going to be a key athlete for our team. And then I feel like we have some good depth in all of the events, so I think we'll be pretty successful.

"Samara Sims competed last year and she did well. She has gained a few new things so I'm excited to see how she does this season as well. We're just hoping to stay away from injuries. Gymnastics is kind of prone to that so we're doing our best."

Northwestern kicked off the season with a strong performance at the Logansport pairs meet, which was set up with two gymnasts participating as a team.

"We did really well the first meet," Jessica Baker said. "We won as a team and both of the pairs that we entered [swept 1-2]. Samara and Karsyn Schoolman took first place, and Emma and Lauren took second place. That was really successful."

Northwestern took fifth in the 19-team Lafayette Jeff Sectional last season, missing out on team advancement by two spots.

Sims was Northwestern's top finisher at the sectional, taking sixth overall to qualify for the regional. She placed in the top 10 in floor, beam and bars and her third-place finish on bars tied for Northwestern's top result. Named the Tribune's Gymnast of the Year in the offseason, she's the only Tiger back from the sectional lineup.

In her first season coaching, it's hard for Jessica Baker to gauge how good the squad is compared to the competition they'll face until the season progresses. Goals at this point are more about the experience of the gymnasts.

"From what I understand, I think they can do well as far as winning and things like that," Jessica Baker said. "Coming from club [gymnastics] and stuff like that, I think the biggest goal that Camie and I have for this team is to have some fun and enjoy the sport."

KOKOMO

Kokomo does not have a team but sophomore Megan Leavitt is representing the Wildkats as an unattached individual and will also be eligible to compete at the Jeff Sectional.

At last week's Franklin Central invitational, she was fourth out of 40 in the all-around and took three top-10 finishes on individual events, topping out at third on beam and bars. Previously, she competed in a meet at Roncalli. She also practices at Roncalli.