Bar set high for Jackson gymnastic team

Andy Harris
Suburbanite correspondent

JACKSON TWP.  With winter sports season ramping up, the start dates for each sport are spread out across a long span of time.

For example, girls basketball tipped off last week, while boys basketball and wrestling will get underway soon. Gymnastics, on the other hand, finds itself with a longer wait to get into competition and with all the COVID-19 pandemic has brought to the sports world in the way of challenges, that extra time could be helpful for the Jackson gymnastics team.

Fourth-year head coach Christy Harp and her team have their first meet scheduled in January, but are nearing the official start of practice and looking forward to what is destined to be a very unusual season.

"We have plenty of girls out this year ... there are 14 out for the team, so we'll have an added challenge for invitationals because we will only allowed to compete six girls in each event," Harp said.

Scaling down the size of the field at invitationals by limiting the number of competitors for each team is just one way this season will be unique from the ones that have preceded it. In addition to restricting teams to six athletes per event, the normal setup of having all teams and competitors in the gym together has been changed to a strict rotation system that will see every team assigned a competition time.

They will be in the gym on their own, Harp noted, and move through the vault, beam, bars and floor portion of competition on their own. Once a team is done, the gym will be sanitized and they will depart without seeing any of their opponents or having the chance to watch those opponents compete.

The normal post-meet awards ceremony won't take place and teams won't know the results until well after they've competed and gone home. It's an odd setup that could well affect the competitive atmosphere around meets, with athletes unable to see how well their competition is doing or feed off the energy in the gym during a typical invitational.

The weeks of practice leading up to the first meet – the Golden Eagle Invitational hosted by GlenOak at the North Canton YMCA – will be a chance to adjust to the new normal for gymnastics among the members of the Jackson team.

"In the gym for our practices, we have all of the new rules ... we have to do temperature checks before practice, and also sanitize equipment after every rotation," Harp said.

Hand washing, hand sanitizing social distancing and other measures that have been implemented across sports and society in general are part of the process as well for a Jackson team that has several top competitors returning from last season. Sophomore Kiara Hockman reached the state meet last year on the beam, capping off a successful freshman season that saw her emerge as one of the Polar Bears' strongest competitors.

Her sister, senior Jaidan Hockman, came out for the squad this season after not being part of the program the past two years and will add depth and experience to the roster. Junior Kyla Jung is another returnee who competes in all four events and qualified for the district meet last season on the bars.

With 14 athletes on the roster even after several potential returnees elected not to come out for the team this season and the team limited to six girls per event at invitationals, Harp admitted it will be difficult to pick lineups and try to find a spot for everyone. Those restrictions will be a factor when it comes to the sectional meet as well, meaning that the meets leading up to it will be a chance for competitors to shine and earn their spot in the lineup in the postseason.

Gymnastics shares common qualities with sports such as golf and tennis, where athletes often compete as individuals year-round in addition to playing for their school. In gymnastics, athletes have plenty of opportunities to test themselves against top amateur competition outside of their varsity schedule. When they do compete for their school, coming together as a group is a key part of the process.

"Gymnastics is unique because all of the girls practice year round at their own home gym, so for us it's about letting them bond and seeing where we are as a team," Harp said. "It's cool because it is an individual sport, but the team score is important, especially at sectionals, where the top teams advance."

While having 14 girls on the roster will pose challenges in this pandemic-impacted season, it's something of a good problem to have when compared to when Harp took over and had five girls on the roster.

Increasing interest has helped the program grow and despite what coaches, athletes and everyone else involved with the sport will have to deal with this season as they adapt and roll with the changes the pandemic is sure to bring along, the excitement to be able to compete is high and the goal for the Polar Bears is building on the success they've had in recent seasons, with an eye on taking it to the next level.