Free State, Lawrence hope to end strange season on high note at state gymnastics meet

photo by: Courtesy photo

Free State and Lawrence High's gymnastics teams pose for a photo on "Twin day" as part of theme week ahead of the state meet. The state gymnastics meet is slated to take place at 11 a.m. Saturday at Newton High School.

For the Lawrence High and Free State gymnastics squads, Saturday’s state meet at Newton High School won’t just be the biggest meet of the year — it will be the culmination of a season that at some points looked like it wouldn’t happen, as well as the finale for one star gymnast’s 15-year career.

That gymnast is Free State’s Talia Gay, who has been involved with the sport for most of her life. She’s looking to bounce back after an injury limited what she could do in last year’s state meet, and she’s considered the favorite to win the all-around state title this year. But she also said it’s going to be bittersweet to compete in her final event.

“It is very weird and it’s going to be really sad,” Gay said. “I’m expecting to win, and I’m hoping to win. For the team, it’s going to be really close.”

Competition in the state meet is slated to begin at 11 a.m. Saturday. Free State has won as a team in all but one of its meets this year, and could be in position to win a state title. Lawrence High is also expected to be in the mix in the team standings.

Aside from Gay, three other Free State seniors will be closing out their careers on Saturday: Tori Crockett, Elsa Fair and Ellie Vickers. Lawrence has two seniors who will be competing in their final meet, Caroline Dunlap and Beth Brandt.

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Earlier this year, it wasn’t even clear whether those seniors would get to take part in another state meet. The COVID-19 pandemic made it tough to tell whether fall sports could even get started.

But once the season was in motion, Katrina Farrow, the head coach of both gymnastics teams, was determined to keep it going.

“Any day we are here together is a day that we are not going to take for granted,” Farrow said. “It is miraculous when you stop and look back and realize we got a season.”

The teams followed strict precautions to prevent the spread of the virus. Prior to every practice, each gymnast had to do a temperature check before being cleared to go through the door of Jayhawk Gymnastics, the gym where the team practices. They were required to log the times when they started and finished practicing. And they washed their hands between events and competed while wearing masks at all times.

All of the precautions paid off — Lawrence and Free State were among the few teams in the state that didn’t have to quarantine at all.

“I think the girls have been incredible,” Farrow said. “The kind of things that they are doing masked up — we have just been really mindful about everything. And I think they figured it out pretty quickly in the beginning.”

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In terms of staying healthy, Gay had more than just the pandemic to worry about.

After winning the all-around state title as a sophomore, she had a back injury that limited her to just bars and vault during last year’s state meet — incidentally, she still won her third consecutive state title in bars. She then had to do physical therapy in the offseason to get back in shape for competition; it started in February and lasted until the middle of the summer.

“(This year) was really important,” Gay said. “I wanted to show up and I wanted to do good for my last year because I’m going to miss it.”

Her perseverance has resulted in a stellar showing this year. Gay has collected several all-around titles in her senior campaign, including a first-place finish at the Sunflower League meet last weekend.

But Gay isn’t the only Firebird who’s earning high scores this season. Kenzie Vaughn, Chaney Finkeldei and Avery Qualseth have consistently come through for Free State during an impressive regular season, and the Sunflower League meet was the only one in which the team didn’t take first place — the Firebirds finished in second.

One highlight of the 2020 season was a meet at Shawnee Mission North on Oct. 24 — the date when the state meet was originally supposed to take place before it was rescheduled for this weekend. At that meet, the Firebirds scored 106.450 points for a first-place finish in the team standings.

“They’ve always been very good; both teams have been very good,” Farrow said. “It’s just nice that everything is clicking all at the same time. Who would have guessed it would have been during a worldwide pandemic?”

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For the Lions, junior Paris Spotted Tail has her own aspirations of coming away with a state title in her favorite event.

Spotted Tail, who has a background in dance, has finished first in the floor event in all but one meet in 2020. Now, she has her sights set on winning the state title in floor after being a runner-up at state in each of the last two years.

This year’s routine has been a year in the making, Spotted Tail said. She made major adjustments to it throughout the season, but she’s happy with it now and hopes it will be enough to secure a state crown.

“That would be so amazing,” Spotted Tail said. “I think I have a good chance, though. I just need to stay focused throughout the whole routine and not be nervous, because I know I can do it.”

Regardless of what happens on Saturday, Spotted Tail said the teams should be proud for making it to the final meet of the season.

“I didn’t think we were going to make it this far,” Spotted Tail said. “I didn’t even think there was going to be a season. (This is) so exciting.”

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