When the state gymnastics meet begins at noon today at Lawrence High, neither the Lions nor defending state champion Free State will be at full strength.
LHS will get a boost with junior Allison Williams returning to the lineup after dealing with a nagging shin injury, but sophomore Heather Wisbey will be out with a sprained wrist.
Meanwhile, Firebirds senior Jackie Zaitz, a key member of Free State's 2011 state title team, won't be able to compete due to a right ankle injury.
FSHS sophomore Grace Bartle, who finished fourth in all-around last season at state, said she and the rest of the Firebirds are trying not to let Zaitz's absence shake them as they attempt to defend their title.
"I'm very nervous," Bartle admitted, adding that Olathe East has been nipping at Free State's heels all season long.
The Firebirds have won six of their seven meets this season, including the Sunflower League championship, which came after Zaitz got injured. Like last weekend for league, they will have seniors Annie Soderberg and Brooke Leslie, junior Hannah Moran, and sophomores Bartle, Carrie Howland and Haley Johnson available as they try to win another state championship.
"I think if we pull it together and we stick our routines," Bartle said, "we can win again, like we did at league."
While aspirations for first-year coach Jessica McMurray's Firebirds revolve around a championship, her other team, the Lions, aim to finish much higher at state than they did a year ago. Lawrence junior Jessie Abernathy, new to the team this season, said the Lions have no interest in finishing 12th, like they did last year.
"We're hoping to place in the top five, which I think is definitely achievable if everyone performs like they can, hits their routines and stays on the beam," Abernathy said.
Like the rest of her teammates — juniors Williams and Cambry Lynch, sophomore Sydney Theilen and freshman Ashley Ammann — and the Firebirds, all of whom practice at LHS, Abernathy thinks the city's gymnasts might have a home equipment advantage at state. Bartle said at different gyms, there can be subtle differences in the equipment used for beams, bars and vaults. She said the Firebirds and Lions know the settings at LHS, so they won't be stressing during warmups.
Added Abernathy: "I think the biggest thing is beams, because they can be super shaky. We're used to knowing how to land on these beams without falling."