The Mead Panthers gymnastics program has been something of an institution in the Greater Spokane League over the past few decades, thanks in large part to coach Laurie Chadwick.
Chadwick stepped down as head coach of the Panthers after a 34-year run and has transitioned into an assistant this season.
Under Chadwick, the Panthers won 14 GSL titles and more than 15 district and regional titles, made 14 state appearances and had one state title winner in 2012. She earned numerous GSL Coach of the Year honors and has been recognized by state and national organizations for her work as a high school gymnastics coach.
Her year-round dedication and career-long passion for coaching gymnastics has positively impacted the lives of hundreds of young women who have passed through Mead.
Throughout her career, Chadwick inspired girls to work the hardest and perform at their best while developing lifelong relationships with their teammates and their coaches.
Taking over as head gymnastics coach at Mead is former Panthers gymnast Hanna Bjerkestrand, who has been an assistant under Chadwick for the past three seasons.
Bjerkestrand’s gymnastics career began at Dynamic Gymnastics, where she fell in love with the sport and spent 10 years as a club gymnast.
Entering freshman year of high school, she joined the Mead gymnastics team, which changed her perspective – high school was the first time she experienced gymnastics as a team sport.
In her first season, Bjerkestrand was part of a very motivated varsity team lead by Chadwick, which ended with a state championship.
After graduation in 2015, Bjerkestrand went to Pacific Lutheran for a short time, but quickly transferred to Whitworth University to finish her kinesiology degree and joined the Mead gymnastics program as an assistant coach.
Three seasons later, Bjerkestrand finds herself in a new role as the head coach at her high school alma mater – with big shoes to fill – all at the tender age of 22.
If Bjerkestrand finds the task daunting, she’s not letting on.
“It’s a little bit, but it’s also kind of what I’ve grown up with,” she said. “But it’s what I know and what I love. So it’s a little intimidating, especially with Mead having such a positive gymnastics history.”
Bjerkestrand knows how much of a luxury it is to have Chadwick remain on the coaching staff.
“(Chadwick) has been very helpful with my transition taking over,” she said. “Asking questions and just being there as a mentor and a friend – and just knowing the chaos of it all.
“She’s very knowledgeable about the sport, but also she can see the potential in someone and can really create a decent gymnast by the end.”
Mead graduated five seniors from last year’s team that finished fourth at state, including first-team all-league vault and floor exercise Sophia Shawen, Lexi Weller (first-team floor, second-team vault) and Lauren Morse (second-team floor).
But the cupboard isn’t quite bare.
Five key athletes return, including sophomore Annalise Thackston, who as a frosh earned first-team all-league honors on balance beam and second-team all-around, uneven bars and floor. Joining her is Kiyanna Nguyen, who earned first-team honors on vault.
“We have a young team this season with no returning varsity seniors,” Bjerkestrand said. “This looks to be a building season. As a team we have a lot of good basics, but need to work on adding difficulty into our routines and gain competitive experience.”
She thinks being so close in age to her athletes will be a positive thing.
“I think it’s helpful,” she said. “I joked at our parent meeting, because one of the things I require is if (an athlete) isn’t going to be at practice, they have to call me. And I made the joke that it’s experience for when they have to talk to a real adult in the future.”
Bjerkestrand acknowledged that some of her athletes have older siblings she went to high school with but assured the parents of her team she was up to the job.
“I definitely said I am not a parent, and I am not planning on being a parent anytime soon. So like I’ll take care of the coaching and (they) can take care of the parenting.”
Around the league
Mt. Spokane: The Wildcats were GSL champs last season (24-0) and took fifth at the State 4A championships. Junior Gina Twenge, who placed second at state in all-around, returns for coaches Dana Tantrum (sixth season) and Adrien Plummer (second). Twenge will lead a deep and talented squad, with sophomores Sam Mason and Lauren Hunter, and seniors Anglea Turner and Kimberly Sevy all contributing. “ We believe that the girls will be competitive on all events in the GSL,” Plummer said. “We have also gained some additional powerhouse tumblers, so floor may prove to be our best event.”
University: Coach Amy Brandle enters her second season with the Titans (17-7) after leading last year’s squad to a third-place finish in the league. “Our top three competitors (including floor state champ Alina Helbling) last year were graduating seniors, so we have some ground to make up with our returners this season,” Brandle said. “We have a strong varsity group that will be elevated by the addition of Maya Meeks, who has club experience and a great skill set.” Senior Justine Jordan was a state qualifier in all around last season.
Lewis and Clark: Coach Michele Kelly earned GSL Co-Coach of the Year honors last season and returns for her ninth year with the Tigers (12-12), without three-time state qualifier Chloe McQuesten. Sophomore Isabelle Ferney qualified for state in vault last season. Juniors Abigail Batten and Annie Pardon will be expected to lead.
North Central: Ninth-year coach Amy Gilbert has four returning letter winners, including senior Andrea Baker, and sees good things on the horizon for the Indians (3-21). “We have two newcomers this year (sophomore Ariana Hoskinson and frosh Kathryn Lawrence) that have several years of competitive gymnastics experience,” she said.