By Rich Fisher | Correspondent
A year ago, the St. John Vianney gymnastics team did not exist, as just two girls performed as independents for the Lancers.
Thus, expectations were likely not high when SJV put five gymnasts together at the end of the summer to return to team status. Sure, the Lancers finished second in the state in 2015, but taking a year away from high school competition makes for a tough return.
See more photos from the Shore Conference Tournament championship, here.
It did not take long, however, for head coach Tracie Vaz to realize her team was ready to surprise some people.
“Everything got going a little late,” Vaz said. “We were waiting to hear back from some people, we weren’t sure everyone was definitely coming on, but once we were able to start practicing and knew who was definitely going to be there, and once we had the first practice and I saw what we had, I said ‘OK we’re going to be coming out of nowhere, no one’s gonna expect us to come forth like this.’”
Come forth they have, in a big, bad way.
On Oct. 28, junior Ari Agrapides led St. John Vianney to the Shore Conference Tournament championship. Agrapides was the individual all-around winner and the Lancers squeaked by Freehold Township by less than half a point. SJV scored 112.625 while Township tallied 112.225.
“This feels really great,” Agrapides said. “We all hit our routines and it definitely boosted our confidence this weekend for sectionals and then states (the following week).”
No one hit them better than Ari, who finished second in the state in all-around to SJV teammate Kristen Politz as a freshman in 2015. She did not compete in high school last year due to some injuries and some showcase meets to improve her college stock.
The Bayville resident has made a triumphant return as witnessed by her performance at the SCT. She took first place on vault (9.825) and beam (9.525), second on bars (9.575) and fourth on floor (9.5) to win the all-around with a 38.435. It is SJV’s second AA title in three years, as Politz won it in ’15.
Vaz noted that Agrapides put forth an effort that was good enough to win, but the coach knows her standout held back some of her tricks for the upcoming sectional and state meets.
“She upgraded some of her skills,” Vaz said. “She played it safe, but she is so clean that it’s very easy for her to score well. She’s like a professional at it, she just knows what she’s doing. She’s very mature about it, makes her decisions. She knows what she can and can’t do. She brought it, she stepped her game up and she’s still got more to come. She’s been in this sport so long she really is extremely talented.”
Agrapides has been doing gymnastics since age 7. She began club at age 9, took several years off while being home schooled, and returned when she entered high school. She is at the top of her field as a Level 10 gymnast and has received a full ride to the University of Iowa.
There are a few things on the to-do checklist before college, however. One was to be the Shore Conference’s best.
“My goal was to try and win it,” she said. “I knew that at least if I could win a couple events I could go for the all-around title. Vault is definitely my best event, and I hit beam so I ended up doing really good.”
But, according to her coach, not as good as she should do at sectionals.
“It’s been a couple years since she’s competed in high school, and it definitely looks like everything is a lot easier for her,” Vaz said. “She basically stepped it up a little bit and there’s more to come. I know she’s gonna pull out some more stuff in the next meet and definitely at states.”
And while Agrapides was the team’s anchor, more than one gymnast is needed to win a team title. Fortunately for the Lancers, they had several who shined.
Sophomore Grace Costello won bars (9.625) and finished sixth all-around (37.575). She was fifth on floor (9.45) and sixth on beam (9.125)
“She is probably one of the most determined and consistent gymnasts I have ever worked with,” Vaz said. “She’s extremely hard working. She’ll do something as many times as she has to do it, to make sure it’s perfect. And she’s very self-motivated; no one has to say anything to her.
“She wants to do her best during practices and in meets. Nothing changes. She practices as if she’s in a meet. It’s nice to see that, a lot of times girls hold back for practices, they don’t do everything they can do and then they pull it out for the meets.”
Junior Alex Panetta finished eight on vault and 12th on bars, and has been steadily improving and adding to her skills. Her toughest critic is herself.
“She also works very hard,” Vaz said. “When she doesn’t do well she gets upset with herself and we have to remind her that it’s OK, we can keep going. She’s come a long way during the season. She started out with little struggles, but within the last couple of weeks has gotten very consistent on her routines. They all kind of feed off each other.”
Rounding out the five-girl team (SJV lost one girl to a pre-season injury) are Sydney Prestup and Caroline Larkin, who provide solid depth behind the three all-arounds.
“Caroline came in and was ready to go,” Vaz said. “Her back was bothering her early so it was a struggle for a while, but she’s up to par with the other girls’ skill level. This was her first good meet back. She did great. She practices hard and has two more years to get even better.
“Sydney was one of our individuals, along with Grace, who competed all-around last year. This year, she took a step back for a couple events. She’s extremely graceful, very beautiful to watch. I’m interested to see where she grows in the next couple of years.”
Considering there is not a senior on the team, it will be interesting to see how the team grows over that time as well.
Not to mention over the next couple of weeks.