A couple of months back, the athletic departments at Free State and Lawrence high schools didn’t know whether they would have a gymnastics program this year.
Today, not only are both programs intact, but they will be competing at the state gymnastics meet at Shawnee Mission Northwest.
Danielle Hayes, the first-year coach for both the Firebirds and Lions, said the season was in limbo in August until a week after most schools had started practicing.
“We were just finding out that we were going to have a team,” she said.
Once each school had enough athletes and got the go-ahead to keep the programs alive, it didn’t take long for Free State to establish itself as one of the top teams around. The Firebirds won the Sunflower League title on Oct. 15 and have finished first at every meet except one this season — and they lost by less than a point in their one second-place finish.
Hayes said even though the FSHS members had done competitive gymnastics in the past, she didn’t expect this type of success.
“With it being my first year, I thought we would all have a period where we would have to rebuild and kind of get to know the sport, high school-wise,” she said.
Firebirds juniors Jackie Zaitz and Annie Soderberg, sophomore Hannah Moran and freshmen Grace Bartle and Haley Johnson have shown they have gymnastics knowledge to spare this year. In fact, they are now among the favorites to win the state meet, which begins at noon today in Shawnee.
“If we can all get it together, like we did for league,” Hayes said, “I think we have a really good chance (to win).”
Zaitz felt just as confident. She said the gymnasts know the other teams will be gunning for them now, but they think they have a shot at winning a state championship.
“I feel like we can if we stay motivated enough,” Zaitz said, “we can probably pull it off.”
Hayes said Lawrence hasn’t been as successful as its FSHS counterparts this season, but added a top-eight finish shouldn’t be ruled out for LHS seniors Wendy Hamm and Amanda Mehl, junior Lindsey Fangman and sophomores Cambry Lynch and Allison Williams.
Hamm said the Lions will give it their best shot at state and, if nothing else, they will enjoy cheering on each other and the Free State gymnasts.
“We’re just one big team. We score separately, but we act as a team whenever we go to meets,” Hamm said. “We’re just one big family.”