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Gymnastics preview: Mind over matter in complicated world of gymnastics

For those involved in ball and stick sports, it’s a hard concept to wrap your head around.

“With our sport, I can’t defend,” University gymnastics coach and long-time judge Tracy Duncan said. “I have no defense against Mead. I can’t do anything to beat Zella (Conley, Mead’s all-around state title contender). I can’t watch her video and figure how to beat her. It doesn’t work that way.”

With gymnastics, it’s all about being on the offensive.

For the uninitiated, the sport itself might be tough to grasp.

“Almost every other sport you get rewarded when you do something,” Duncan said. “In gymnastics, when I’m judging, I’m looking for what you did wrong. I’m not looking for what you did right. If I see a flexed foot, or a bent arm, or a slightly bent leg, or a lack of amplitude, my pen is writing. I’m looking for what you did wrong, not what you do right.”

Duncan took up gymnastics in the seventh grade, started coaching while participating in ninth grade at Central Valley and started judging on the club level in 1995. She has coached U-Hi for 13 seasons and this, her 14th, will be her last year coaching.

Gymnastics, the way Duncan teaches and coaches it, is as much mental as it is physical.

“It’s a totally different mentality. And it takes a lot of guts to go out there,” Duncan said. “That’s why I don’t let my girls set any goals based on a score – because they don’t have the ability to control what the judge is doing. That one judge, on that one event, on that one day. They have no control over that.

“What they do have control over is, ‘Did you make that connection, did you do what I asked you to do at this meet?’ That’s where I make my girls set their goals.”

The majority of folks watch gymnastics every four years during the Olympics and have little to no concept of what judges are looking for, Duncan said.

“I think all you can do watching gymnastics as a layperson is just sit back and say, ‘Wow. Holy cow. Did you see how high she went?’ That’s all you can do,” Duncan said.

Even the rules that guide wins and losses, standings and playoff spots are as convoluted as advanced calculus.

For instance, the Greater Spokane League schedules meets from late November until late January, but the only meets that count toward a school’s record is the last time they face a particular opponent. Those meets come the last couple of weeks in January, when the predetermined top and bottom half of the league meets separately. The week following is the 4A and 3A qualifying championships to determine which team and which individuals move on to districts (for 3A) and regionals (for 4A).

Eventually, one team in each state classification qualifies out of regionals for state – allowed to take its entire team. After the winning team’s athletes are taken out of the pool, the next two highest all-around athletes qualify for state. Then, the next four highest scorers from each event are invited to state.

This year, the three top athletes to watch out of the GSL are Mead’s Conley and Mya Stein, along with Jessica Harpel of Ferris.

“Zella, no doubt,” Duncan said. “She’s such a good kid. She’s so natural.

“And gymnastics isn’t even her best sport, track is. The kid is just a God-given athlete. Her talent is unbelievable.”


University: Of the coaches who responded to our preseason poll, the Titans were a unanimous decision to win the GSL title and have a second- and third-place finish this season. U-Hi brings back six starters from last season’s 8-2 team, including senior co-captains Pam Styborski and Anna Johnson. Coach Tracy Duncan, in her 14th and final season as coach, said, “I think we will be solid on all four events this year,” but “we don’t have gymnasts with previous high-level experience.” Styborski finished third all-around in her last meet with a third place in balance beam, while Johnson has a third-place all-around finish earlier in the season and took second in beam. Junior Autumn Gallagher has placed in uneven bars this season as well.

Central Valley: The Bears have taken the overall title in their first two meets for coaches Brittney Schmidt and Lizzie Roberg, led by senior Chloe Robbins, who has a pair of second-place all-around finishes to her credit this season. Sophomore Victoria Axtell has placed in beam and floor exercise in both her meets and freshman Rebekah Ross has a second place in bars and floor. The Bears returned eight lettermen to form a strong core group.

Mt. Spokane: The Wildcats return five lettermen from last season’s team that finished fourth at state for coach Dana Trantum. Junior Carly Hattenburg and sophomore Kimberly Sevy dealt with injuries last season, but both are off to a good start in the new campaign. Hattenburg took the all-around title in the Dec. 13 meet while pacing in all four disciplines. Sevy won the floor exercise and took third in vault and junior Kate Roth won the vault to help Mt. Spokane to second place in the team competition. Both athletes placed in the Wildcats’ first meet on Dec. 6, another second place for the team.

Mead: Coach Laurie Chadwick’s Panthers boast high-end talent in seniors Zella Conley – who took first all-around in the Dec. 7 meet with first-place honors in bars and vault, and second on the beam – and Mya Stein, who placed in seven out of eight events and was second all-around in both the Dec. 7 and Dec. 14 meets – both overall wins for Mead. Junior Lauren Morse placed third overall at the early meet adding a third place on the beam, junior Lexi Weller owns a pair of wins on the floor and placed on the vault in the early meet and junior Sophia Shawen has placed twice on the vault and once on the floor.

Ferris: Senior Jessica Harpel, seventh all-around in state last season, has kicked her season off with a bang with two first all-around finishes thus far, winning six events and taking second in another. Coach Carmen Schluter has three returners for her second campaign at the helm, and freshmen comprise more than half her team. “We have potential for a good finish,” Schulter said.

Cheney: Sophomore Sophia VanWormer has been a welcome addition to rookie coach Jamie Frucci’s squad. She placed third all-around in the Dec. 13 and owns a pair of wins on the bars. Other impact returners include senior Alexis Miller, junior Makayla Miller and sophomore Kyli Mayhew.

Shadle Park: The Highlanders return two state qualifiers and a regional qualifier for veteran coach Stoyan Katzarski, entering his 19th year as a head coach. Senior Brooklynn Tarr placed fourth all-around at state last year with a second place on the beam, fourth on the bars and ninth on the vault. And there may be a diamond in the rough, as Shadle had 38 athletes turn out. “I have many gymnasts with no experience,” Katzarski said, praising the group’s willingness to work hard and improve.