Gymnastics: Season recap

The North Oconee gym team won the 1A-5A state championship on April 24 at Buford Arena. Front row, from left: Coach Hillary Sanders, Sofia Lee, SK Langley, Delaney Boswell, Grace Anne Cain, Mary Hotcaveg, Emma Haygood, Caroline McDonald, Frannie Katz, Ila Schwender, Sarah Waters, Caleigh Connors, Maggie Nunn; Back row, from left: Kacey Turk, Lila Smith, Chloe McDonald, Maylen Pulliam, Madison McMullen, Brantley Lucas, Kate Stetter, Gabby Nguyen, Coach Ashley Owens.
The North Oconee gym team won the 1A-5A state championship on April 24 at Buford Arena. Front row, from left: Coach Hillary Sanders, Sofia Lee, SK Langley, Delaney Boswell, Grace Anne Cain, Mary Hotcaveg, Emma Haygood, Caroline McDonald, Frannie Katz, Ila Schwender, Sarah Waters, Caleigh Connors, Maggie Nunn; Back row, from left: Kacey Turk, Lila Smith, Chloe McDonald, Maylen Pulliam, Madison McMullen, Brantley Lucas, Kate Stetter, Gabby Nguyen, Coach Ashley Owens.

Credit: Courtesy of Hillary Sanders

Credit: Courtesy of Hillary Sanders

The GHSA’s 2021 gymnastics season weathered the pandemic and ended on April 24 at Buford Arena with two champions crowned: North Oconee in 1A-5A, and Newnan in 6A-7A. North Oconee also won a championship in 2019, the last completed season after spring sports were canceled in 2020, and Newnan won for the first time since 2008.

In this final gymnastics post of the year, we will spotlight the two championship programs.

For a recap of the championship meet, go here.

North Oconee: Winning as a team

If the Gym Titans were going to repeat as champions, coach Hillary Sanders said they’d need to come together. Fortunately for them, that’s exactly what happened on the way to a 113.746 score — the next closest team was Pace Academy (105.73).

“We really pulled together as a team and focused on doing our best in every event,” Sanders said. “We may not have had the best performance as a team — we scored higher in Thursdays prelims — but we still did great and got the job done. We encouraged each other as a team, and that was the best part of the whole day.”

The team support came in handy when it became evident their plan of topping their preliminary score wouldn’t come to fruition. That’s when the team refocused, emphasizing rhythm and a championship state-of-mind.

“There were some individual disappointments, but we brushed those aside,” Sanders said. “What’s done is done, so let’s do the best we can.”

Sanders said the team lifting its own spirits was the highlight of the meet. For example, she noted one gymnast struggled during the prelims, only to turn around in the championships and deliver a crucial high score.

With the North Oconee program, Sanders’ goal all along was to provide her gymnasts with a fun environment that’s less strenuous than club level competition. That, and to stay healthy.

Both goals were accomplished with the championship.

“I felt like I could finally take a deep breath because we got through the season with no injuries,” she said. “Seeing the girls celebrate with their teammates was special. They enjoyed the day and it was their last meet together, so at the end they took silly pictures and kind of let loose, taking in the whole moment.”

The future looks bright for the Gym Titans. Though they lose their senior leader Maylen Pulliam, they return juniors Brantley Lucas and Madison McMullen, along with their three freshman Kate Stetter, Chloe McDonald and Gabyy Nguyn. Further, Sanders sees promising talent on the JV squad that should be ready to make the varsity leap next year.

“Continuing the path we’re on is what we’re hoping for,” she said.

In the end, Sanders is glad the Gym Titans won the title and represented their school well.

“I’m incredibly proud to be a part of this team and see them be successful,” Sanders said. “I’m proud of the way they represented North Oconee at the state level, and how they carried themselves the whole season.”

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The Newnan gym team won the 6A-7A state championship on April 24 at Buford Arena. From left, Molly English, Paige Krauth, Jada Reese, Rubylyn Goad and Mikayla Burton.
The Newnan gym team won the 6A-7A state championship on April 24 at Buford Arena. From left, Molly English, Paige Krauth, Jada Reese, Rubylyn Goad and Mikayla Burton.

Credit: Courtesy of Robin Goad

Credit: Courtesy of Robin Goad

Newnan: A whirlwind of a season — literally

Heading into the season, it was a given that this was to be one of the more challenging GHSA gymnastics seasons in recent memory, if not ever, due to the pandemic. The adversities COVID-19 presented are what every competing program was forced to deal with.

However, in the case of Newnan, those challenges were compounded in late-March by a category EF-4 tornado that destroyed the town, including the high school. Newnan has been virtually learning ever since, with an increasing likelihood students won’t return to campus this school year.

To say the Gym Cats were focused and motivated to win the second title in program history would be an understatement. They dominated from start to finish and compiled a 114.68 score to finish ahead of host Buford (111.715).

Most impressive to Gym Cats coach Robin Goad was that her team performed all 16 events without a fall.

“That’s like going 16-for-16 in baseball, or every football pass being a touchdown,” she said. “For four girls to hit four routines and stick them in the same competition, that’s a huge feat.”

The Gym Cats set the tone in their first event, vault, and never looked back. After a strong performance on bars, they headed to beam, which Goad said can sink a team. She’s seen competitors fall to cost their team an event and, in an extreme case, she saw a gymnast lose a chance to compete olympic trials.

When Newnan got through beam unscathed, it was in the driver’s seat for a title.

“I’m sure a lot of the other coaches were like, ‘Well, there’s that,’” Goad said.

The Gym Cats’ final event, floor, was a formality but they didn’t let up — again getting through the event without a fall.

And with that, Newnan finally won a championship after being on the brink since 2018.

Newnan should be the favorites to repeat next year. The Gym Cats will return juniors Rubylyn Goad — Robin Goad’s daughter — and her lifelong teammate, Mikayla Burton. The two, who have led the team during their run that began when they were freshmen, have been on the same gym team since they were 18 months old.

“I feel like we have a good shot at being in contention if we can stay healthy,” Goad said. “You never know, but we will definitely be able to put up some big numbers. We’re not the only team, but we’ll definitely be a contender.”

With Newnan closed, administrators must get approval to enter campus and wear a hardhat while there. A month ago, students and teachers were briefly allowed on the premises to gather belongings. A decision on whether the school reopens this year could come down as soon as this week, and in the meantime, the buildings are being evaluated for repair or rebuild.

All of that turmoil makes Newnan’s gym title sweeter.

“Bright, shining moments heal a broken community,” Goad said. “We want to wake up with things to be happy about, things to celebrate. Small or large accomplishments are meaningful for healing. I’ve received so many emails and calls from coworkers, and the Newnan Police Department even congratulated us on Facebook. We’re excited to be able to bring home something positive.

“We’ve been providing something positive with team’s volunteering and donations, but for them to win the championship is icing on the cake.”

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