SOUTHINGTON — It’s tempting to say this season is going to look a lot like the last one for Southington gymnastics.
Many of the same faces and polished routines that landed the Lady Knights the Class L and State Open team championships in 2020 are back in 2021.
Except, of course, hardly anything will be the same in this winter season of the pandemic. Not even the faces: They’ll be partially covered by the masks that all winter athletes, save for swimmers, must wear.
Nor will there be a championship repeat. The CIAC, wanting to maximize what is already an abbreviated regular season for its member schools, has opted not to stage winter state tournaments, mirroring a decision also made in the fall season.
Thus Southington, which has known gymnastics dynasties in each of the first two decades of this century, will just have to wait to see if another emerges in the 2020s.
And that’s fine with the Blue Knights, who did a collective and figurative handspring when the CIAC gave the green light to a season that seniors like captain Natalie Reeves were almost afraid to wish for lest they set themselves up for disappointment.
“Just to have a senior season is incredible,” said Reeves. “We’re just happy to have an opportunity.”
The opportunity commences for coach Cassidy Chamberland’s club next Saturday, Feb. 13 at home at the American Gymnastics Training Center when Central Connecticut Conference rival Conard pays a 4:30 p.m. visit.
It’s the first of seven meets on the season for Southington. Two are virtual: Ellington on Feb. 17, Glastonbury on March 1. In those meets, the team will compete separately in their home gyms, then compare scores.
Other than that, everything is in-person. The Blue Knights go to Silk City Gymnastics to face South Windsor on Feb. 20 and Whiting Elementary School in West Hartford to face Conard for the back end of the home-and-home series.
The season culminates March 6 against Farmington at Farmington Valley Gymnastics.
“We made it work,” Chamberland said of the schedule. “There was talk of going fully virtual, but a lot of us we’re, ‘No, we don’t want that.’
“It’s not the same,” Chamberland continued. “For the girls to actually be face to face with another team, that’s going to fuel more competition. When it’s virtual, it feels more like a practice, like a mock meet and not a real meet.”
In-person meets should also help compensate for the loss of the state events. Southington is taking the inability to defend those Class L and State Open titles in stride.
“It was kind of upsetting that we won’t have a state championship, but at the same time it’s kind of nice not to have a lot of pressure this year and just to be able to go out and do your routines,” Reeves said.
The absence of state meets and the rankings that feed into them gives teams ample opportunity to spread out mat time, which is what the Blue Knights intend to do. They’ve got a roster of 19. They’ll be looking for the older girls to perform at a consistent high level and for the younger ones to hone their talents and embrace the familial spirit that Chamberland credits for the program’s recent success.
“I’m focused on developing the team into a cohesive unit, developing that family atmosphere so, when this senior group graduates, we still have that family atmosphere of being there for each other and supporting each other on the mat,” Chamberland said.
“I’ve been in this sport long enough where I’ve seen teams that had the talent, but weren’t 100 percent committed to the team,” Chamberland added. “When you’re committed to the team, that fuels a lot of success, wanting to succeed for one another.”
Reeves and fellow senior captains Lizy Beaulieu and Kaylin Leifert are at the heart of the squad. Each has been with the program for four years.
Beaulieu is going on to compete at Fairfield University. Reeves just commited to Hawaii Pacific for acrobatics and tumbling.
Another Southington senior will be competing in acrobatics and tumbling next year and that’s Kelly Perrotti, who is going to Limestone University in South Carolina.
Perrotti was last year’s all-around champ in Class LL. She’s on the mend from hip surgery, however, and is unlikely to compete this season.
“We’re upset to not have her competing, but she’s still part of the team and working on developing her strength,” Chamberland said. “If she does (compete), it’s probably only going to be on bars.”
Southington has additional upperclassmen in seniors Haley Derwin and Taylor Gaudiosi as well as in juniors Rylee LeClair and Kacie Fusco.
A large sophomore group that broke in a year ago is back virtually intact: Taylor Kelly, Kelsey Salerno, Tori Harrington, Katie Beaulieu, Madison Beidler, Sam Freyler and Kelsey Lamson. Kelly and Salerno, in particular, will be big factors.
Yet another substantial rookie class is arriving. It featues Gabrielle Ferreira, Madison Allister, Riley Corr and Jillian Miller.
It adds up to a lot of depth and a lot of options. Chamberland has already put the question to assistant coach Marilyn Sporbert: “Who are we putting in the lineups because they are all offering something?”
One thing not subject to debate are the team meetings before and after each practice. This is where that sense of family is emphasized. Girls are encouraged to speak to the group, to say what they saw in practice and what they liked.
In a short season, it looms as a bridge.
“There’s quite a few seniors this year, but we have some strong freshmen coming in,” Reeves remarked. “It will be cool to see where we are, build the team, bond as a team and pass the torch off to them for the next four years.”