Once again, all eyes will be on Hand when it comes to conference and state championship competitions on the Connecticut high school gymnastics scene this year. And as usual, the Tigers are once again ready to face their challengers by dedicating themselves to perfection.
Last season, Head Coach Kelly Smith’s club powered its way through the regular season behind a mark of 18-2, with the only blemishes coming against Fairfield Ludlowe and Haddam-Killingworth/Hale-Ray/Coginchaug. After that, Hand claimed its eighth straight SCC championship, then won its fourth consecutive Class M crown and 17th state title overall by defeating both squads that they’d previously lost to. The Tigers went on to post a fourth-place finish at the State Open Championship.
This year, the Tigers are off to another fast start at 5-0, including recent wins over Hamden and Foran. Thus far, Coach Smith said that her team has been right on the money with its scoring average and added that her athletes will look to keep refining their technique between now and the postseason.
“We’ve had a strong start, scoring in the 130s, which is definitely where we want to be. We’ve had some falls, though, mostly on new skills, so we’ll be looking to get in more numbers in the gym and improve consistency first, then fine-tune all the little details,” said Smith. “We have a ways to go, but the girls have shown tremendous potential thus far.”
Smith’s club features an ideal trio of senior captains this year. The Tigers’ captains are defending SCC beam champion and all-around competitor Noelle Bergere, who also broke the school record for diving last fall; fellow all-around gymnast Olivia Finke, who was a captain on Hand’s girls’ volleyball team; and Sam Mayhew, who captained the girls’ soccer squad. Coach Smith knows that all three athletes have experienced plenty of team and individual success, and said that they’re building upon that in the gym this winter.
“Noelle boasts our only 10.0 start value on beam. Noelle is a quiet workhorse in the gym who leads by example. She does high numbers in practice, giving her the confidence and strength to hit in meets,” Coach Smith said. “Olivia Finke was All-State as a sophomore and came in looking stronger than ever this season. She’s also a hard worker, leading by example, but also motivating and encouraging younger athletes. Sam Mayhew is an easy-going, hard-working, and well-liked leader that contributes most often on vault and floor.”
Joining those athletes as additional sparks to the Tigers’ lineup are senior all-around performer Lily Spencer, a 2015-’16 All-State First Team selection; as well as junior Erin Naclerio, plus a sophomore set of Grace Rogers, Mary Huminski, and Schylar Saliba.
“Lily Spencer doesn’t have a weakness. She is a strong competitor everywhere for us and, most notably, has scored 9.1 on vault in each of our first two meets so far,” said Smith. “Erin Naclerio is also a strong competitor everywhere and has our only 10.0 start value on vault. Grace Rogers is strong on all four events, but most notably on beam and floor. She’s added significant difficulty since last season and will be a big contributor for the next few years. Mary Huminski and Schylar Saliba are also strong sophomore competitors.”
In last week’s action, the Tigers defeated Hamden 129.4-105.6 on Jan. 17. On the vault, Naclerio took first place with an 8.8 and was followed by Spencer (8.75) and Mayhew (7.8). On bars, Naclerio and Spencer tied for the top spot at 8.7, while Finke was second (7.8), and junior Marisa Padelli took third (7.0). Naclerio won on the beam (9.1) and Spencer followed in second (8.1), plus junior Delaney Skelly finished third (7.7) for Hand. Spencer won the floor routine (8.9), Saliba was second (8.2), and Naclerio tied for third (7.9). For the all-around, Naclerio posted a total of 34.5 to take first place, while Spencer claimed second with a 34.45.
Against Foran on Jan. 19, the Tigers prevailed by the final of 136.1-116.4. Solid performances for Hand came from Naclerio (34.9 all-around with a 9.0 bars and beam); Spencer (34.55 all-around, 8.85 beam, 8.8 floor); Rogers (33.55 all-around, 8.7 on floor); Bergere (8.9 on beam, 8.3 on floor); Saliba (8.4 on vault, 8.3 on beam, 8.2 on floor); and freshman Carly Barba (8.15 on vault). Barba was making her high school debut on vault and beam, while sophomore Catherine Aranow and junior Brinkley Engel debuted on the vault last week. Additionally on the week, sophomore Lexi Theel and Padelli executed new bar connections.
“We were really pleased with tonight’s performance. It’s our top team score, but it was also our top team performance so far this year,” Coach Smith said of the win against Foran. “Erin and Lily continue to turn in solid all-around scores and lead the way for us. Neither of them have a weakness and still haven’t hit what could be their scoring potential for this year. Same with Grace, who had a solid all-around today and some top performances. She’s still feeling her way through some new skills and will score big for us this year.”
We are not perfect by any means yet, but tonight was a great indication of us moving forward and getting better and more confident in our performances,” Smith continued. “We had a rough meet on beam [against Hamden], so I was glad to see them bounce back there. Beam is always the riskiest event but also for us, has the highest scoring potential.”
Hand will certainly be well tested by the time the postseason arrives after competing against the likes of SCC power Mercy, as well as Glastonbury, Fairfield Ludlowe, and New Milford. Coach Smith knows that her athletes can take nothing for granted and doesn’t want them to hold anything back in the Tigers’ quest to defend their thrones.
“Our goals are to continue the SCC and state title winning streaks. But we also want work hard and leave it all on the line, so if our streak ends, we know we did our best,” said Coach Smith. “We lost some strength in last year’s senior class and will again this year, so we’re also working hard with underclassmen to build for future success.”
From the Sidelines
Kelly Smith is in her 11th year as Hand’s head coach.
Jessica Hoover is once serving as assistant coach this winter. It’s her seventh campaign with the Tigers.
The SCC Championship is scheduled for Friday, Feb. 10 at Law. The state championship meets will be held on Saturday, Feb. 25 at Pomperaug.