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Jackson gymnastic sprints toward sectional

Andy Harris
Suburbanite correspondent

JACKSON TWP.  The high school gymnastics season is much more of a sprint than a marathon, with teams competing in just a handful of meets before the postseason begins.

The Jackson gymnastics team (from left) Emily Behn, Riley Williams, Hannah Carpenter, Hannah Fish, Kyla Yung, Amanda Williamson, Jaidan Hockman, Emma Reindel, Izzy Rivera, Kiara Hockman, Emmalie Mitzel, Megan Downey. Coaches are Kathleen McKee, Ariel Liskey and Christy Harp

That makes each meet more important within the context of a given season and for the Jackson Polar Bears, their two regular-season outings have them feeling good about where they stand as they gear up for their sectional tournament appearance on Feb. 14.

"It went well ... at our first meet we just let each girl do two events to try to give everyone more of a chance to compete," Jackson head coach Christ Harp said. "It was challenging, but we had a good score and it was just great seeing them all support each other."

The third-place result in a 12-team field was an encouraging start for Jackson, with some familiar faces leading the charge as Kiara Hockman – fresh off qualifying for the state meet last season – finished first on the beam and second in vault at the Golden Eagle Invitational.

Teammate Kyla Jung was also solid, placing third on the floor exercise portion of the meet and also third on the bars, helping the Polar Bears to a 126.6 team score. Freshman Emmalie Mitzel turned in a sixth-place finish on the bars and was seventh in the vault, contributing to the team's success as well.

The event had 12 teams in the field, but the maximum number of teams in the gym at a given time was four. Jackson took the floor as the penultimate team in the rotation, meaning many of the teams against whom they were competing had already wrapped up their floor time and left before the Polar Bears started.

"It was a lot quieter with very few people in the stands and no parents allowed unless it's a senior (athlete's) parent," Harp said. "I feel like it was still a fun experience, but it wasn't as festive ... normally it's so loud with all of the parents in the stands."

Due to teams having staggered start times and only a few being in the gym at the same time, it took about two and a half hours for Jackson to finish all of its events as opposed to the four hours the same meet would take in a normal season.

That meet set the stage for this past weekend's Polar Bear Invitational, where Jackson hosted and reworked its lineup to allow its top competitors to have more chances to compete and round into top form for the sectional meet.

With first-place finishes in every event, it's fair to say their strategy worked. Jung had what Harp described as "the meet of her life," winning the floor exercise, bars and all-around competitions. Hockman had one of her personal bests on the beam as well, scoring a 9.4 to help power her team to a first-place result with 128.75 points. According to Harp, the addition of a new trick on the beam – known as an aerial or cartwheel – has given Hockman the chance to post even higher scores in the event.

With their regular-season meets now completed, the Polar Bears are in a two-week period in which they are preparing for the postseason.

Normally, the sectional meet would be held in West Geauga, but the venue – and format – has shifted this season. With the COVID-19 pandemic impacting every aspect of sports and society, a larger setting should benefit all of the teams in the field.

"It is very different this year because we're going to be competing at the Summit County Fairgrounds, where we've never competed before," Harp said. "They're going to have two different competition areas and two sets of equipment, so the judges can just go back and forth between the two."

In past sectional meets, a team would arrive around 8 a.m. and likely be in the gym until the evening. This time around, Jackson will arrive in the afternoon, compete and head out a few hours later. The message leading up to the sectional meet, according to Harp, is to stay healthy and well-rested and to make good choices in terms of staying safe and not taking any risks that could lead to athletes being exposed to COVID-19, forcing them to miss the meet.

The sprint that is the high school gymnastics season is reaching its home stretch, making it all the more important to be at full strength and ready to compete for championships.