Heading into the SCC Championship as the eight-time defending champion and with a formidable challenger nipping at their heels, the athletes on the Hand gymnastics team knew the heat was on in the quest to defend their title. However, just like in the previous eight seasons, the Tigers remained calm, cool, and collected on the big stage, and the result was the latest in a long line of conference crowns.
On Feb. 11, Hand competed in the SCC Championship at Jonathan Law High School in Milford. Mercy entered the meet as the best candidate to potentially unseat the Tigers at the top after having lost a narrow 133.75-130.65 decision to Hand in the regular season. When it came time to perform in the postseason spotlight, the Tigers shined brightest by posting their best scoring of the year with a 137.15 to defeat runner-up Mercy (133.1) and claim their ninth consecutive SCC championship.
“Winning SCCs meant so much for our team. We certainly had a lot of pressure from Mercy and we used that to motivate us. Everyone has been working their butts off in practice, so this win was well deserved,” said junior Erin Naclerio, who placed first in the all-around with a score of 36.15. “I felt I had a great meet and there are still some things I need to work on. I have no regrets and I couldn’t have wished for a better outcome.”
Complementing Naclerio’s performance, senior Lily Spencer also medaled in the all-around by finishing in sixth place with a score of 34.2. Naclerio won the vault with a 9.3, while Spencer medaled in the event with her third-place score of 9.05. Both athletes additionally claimed medals on bars as Spencer won the competition with a 9.0 with Naclerio taking third (8.85). Naclerio also medaled on the balance beam and floor exercise, finishing third in both events with a 9.0. Olivia Finke took fourth place on the beam at 8.9 and fellow senior Noelle Bergere was fourth on floor with the same score as both athletes won medals in their respective events. Finke finished ninth in the all-around with a total of 32.6.
Head Coach Kelly Smith talked about the Tigers’ top two all-around performances that helped propel them to the top of the conference for the ninth year in a row.
“Erin has been our top all-around performer all year and she’s just recently been putting hit routines on all four events together at the same time. We knew she’d have a great chance at the [all-around title] if she hit and she had a great day. Her vault is one of the hardest in the competition and she put it to her feet today. We’re so proud of her—her dedication, her hard work, her focus—and for her to get a 36 and the [all-around] and vault titles today is well deserved,” said Smith of Naclerio. “Lily also has been one of top all-around performers and what’s so special about Lily is her cleanliness. She does gymnastics that is beautiful to watch with great technique and she was the cleanest and best bar set today. She was definitely surprised to win, but she’s got a great bar routine, and deserved to be there and on the all around podium today.”
Just like Naclerio, Spencer gave a rave review regarding Hand’s showing at the conference meet. On a personal level, Spencer felt that her one small setback will simply fuel her fire to fare even better as the postseason continues.
“This win was also really significant because it’s my senior year. There has been so much more pressure from Mercy this year and we knew how good of a team they were and how much harder we were going to have to work in the gym,” said Spencer. “I’m very proud personally of how I did. The balance beam was a little rough, but it just gives me more motivation to get back in the gym and work harder for upcoming meets. But honestly, I’m so proud of everyone and their accomplishments.”
Coach Smith also discussed the valiant effort of one gymnast who found her center on an event at the right time, plus another who battled back to the mat after suffering an injury during the regular season.
“Olivia Finke hit an 8.9 on beam. She’s added difficulty this year and has struggled a bit with consistency and nerves. Before she went today, she was visibly nervous and made a slight change to boost her confidence. She then hit the routine of her life with her highest score to secure a spot on the podium,” Smith said. “Grace Rogers was also one of our top all-around performers and she went down with an injured ankle a few weeks ago. We weren’t sure if she’d be back this year, but she’s been working hard in her rehabilitation, and was so fired up from our loss earlier this week that she was cleared by her doctor to compete bars. She got an 8.0 today, a score that really helped our team score on our weakest event and proves what a tough competitor she is. We’re grateful and look forward to her complete return.”
Previously, on Feb. 7, Hand scored a 133.5 and took its first loss of the year against Fairfield Ludlowe (134.95), while also defeating Nonnewaug (122.4) to move to 14-1. For vault, Spencer scored a 9.1 and sophomore Mary Huminski added an 8.6. On bars, Spencer recorded an 8.8. For floor, Bergere earned a 9.0. For the all-around, Spencer finished with a 34.6 for the Tigers. Other performances included Finke (32.5 all-around, 8.3 on vault and floor); senior Sam Mayhew (8.5 on beam, 8.4 on vault and floor); sophomore Schylar Saliba (8.45 on vault, 8.4 on floor); and freshman Carly Barba 8.15 on vault.
“Sam Mayhew hit and was a top scorer on all three of her events tonight. She’s looking really consistent and was our only beam competitor to make her routine tonight. Olivia Finke and Carly Barba both added new difficulty to their vaults to increase their start values and their scores. Also, Marisa Padelli had a great bar routine tonight and also increased her difficulty with a harder dismount. Mary Huminski has been out with of some lineup spots with an injury and we were excited to have her back in the all-around tonight for the first time this season,” Coach Smith said. “It was tough to take a loss tonight because we didn’t have the best day on balance beam. The other three events were strong, but only [Sam Mayhew] made her beam routine.”
:Fairfield Ludlowe will most likely be one of our top challengers in the Class M state meet in a few weeks, so we would have liked to defeat them tonight. They looked strong and certainly performed better than we did today,” Smith continued. “We’re pleased with some increased difficulty we have on vault and bars and we’ve been very successful lately on floor, but if we want to defend our state championship, we will have to stay on the beam.”
The Tigers now set their sights on capturing a fifth straight state crown. Coach Smith said the way that Hand handled the anxiety of the SCC meet bodes well for the Tigers entering the state competition.
“This was our highest team score so far this season. We had a great day. There’s no better feeling than using pressure to buckle down and hit when it matters most,” Smith said. “Mercy is having a great year, and we knew they’d be right behind us and capitalize on mistakes we made, so it was important for us to have a good day. The girls were nervous, but used the nervous energy to focus and do their jobs. This is a great confidence booster moving into the state tournament.”
From the Sidelines
Erin Naclerio, Lily Spencer, Olivia Finke, Noelle Bergere, and Schylar Saliba made the All-SCC Team for the Tigers
Rounding out the team scores for the SCC Championship, Law finished in third place (123.8), Foran followed at fourth (114.7), and Hamden finished fifth (112.45).
The State Championship meets will take place on Saturday, Feb. 25 at Pomperaug High School. Hand has won the last four Class M crowns.