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Gymnastics: Cardinals come together through adversity

The story of the Willmar gymnastics team's season is one best told by tears. First, sad ones; then, streams of joy. With the Cardinals set to compete at the Class A team state meet on Friday, there could still be more yet to come. When top all-ar...

Pictured are the 14 Willmar gymnasts that will be traveling to compete in Friday's Class A state meet. The Cardinals qualified for the first time in 21 years this season. Jake Schultz / Tribune
Pictured are the 14 Willmar gymnasts that will be traveling to compete in Friday's Class A state meet. The Cardinals qualified for the first time in 21 years this season. Jake Schultz / Tribune
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The story of the Willmar gymnastics team's season is one best told by tears.

First, sad ones; then, streams of joy.

With the Cardinals set to compete at the Class A team state meet on Friday, there could still be more yet to come.

When top all-around performer Erica Schramm suffered a C7 vertebra fracture in Jan. 18, just two days after the top-ranked Cardinals recorded their highest score of the year, Willmar was left scrambling both to replace her spot in the lineup and emotionally prepare to compete again.

"At first it was tough," head coach Jodi Mottinger said. "There were a lot of tears at practice for a few days."

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Even within the team, there was some doubt about how they would, or even could, regroup.

"Losing Erica, we definitely got down on ourselves," senior co-captain Jolissa Lara said. "We were like, 'It's over.'"

Spoiler alert: It wasn't.

Nearly one month to the date after Schramm's injury, the Cardinals earned the program's first team state appearance in 21 years by taking first place at the Section 6A meet on Feb. 17 in Litchfield.

The jubilous crying commenced.

"It really was a special moment for the girls," Mottinger said. "They worked so hard for that moment. It was their goal from before the season started."

Through the adversity of Schramm's injury, the Cardinals have come together even more.

"Our motto is 'Do it for Erica.'," Lara said.

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Willmar saw its scores fluctuate in the aftermath of Schramm's injury, including a third-place outing at the Central Lakes Conference championships that dropped it out of first place in what Mottinger called a "tough day." Now, the Cardinals seem to have settled into a groove.

"You look at (Schramm) and you can tell that she wants to be doing what you're doing," sophomore Kirah Kessler-Gross said. "If you're having a rough day and don't want to be doing this anymore, you look at her and say that she would want to do this. She would do anything to be back."

Willmar will have one final chance to live out that motto as a team on 11 a.m. on Friday when the state meet begins at the Maturi Pavilion on the University of Minnesota campus. The team heads down to Minneapolis following a send-off at the school on Thursday afternoon.

The objective will be the same as it's been all season for the Cardinals.

"We want to finish in the top three to medal and podium," Mottinger said. "That's where we've had our eyes all season long, so to have that chance is really incredible."

Top-ranked Detroit Lakes enters the meet as the three-time defending state champion and clear favorites after posting a school-record score of 152.375, but after that, it's open season for the remaining podium spots.

"Realistically, for any other team to get first place, Detroit Lakes would have to help out a lot by coming back down to the group," Mottinger said. "They're so deep that it makes that tough. That next group is all around that 145-to-147 range, and we're right there."

Willmar is currently the third-ranked team, but its section meet score of 146.55 was second-best in the state.

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"There's definitely room to improve on our score from sections," Mottinger said. "We left a little out there. If we can hit five-for-five on beam, get the little things right, I like our chances to post a really nice score."

The good news for the Cardinals is that they bring a consistent performance in the floor exercise and are also coming off a season-best score on the bars.

As for performing on the big stage, Mottinger isn't at all concerned.

"I don't think they'll let the bigger stadium, the bright lights get to them," she said.

Chalk that up to a loose group whose favorite non-gymnastics activities include going to Qdoba and holding dance parties at just about every opportunity.

"We really come together as a team and really encourage one another," Kessler-Gross said. "We're always there encouraging each other on every event, cheering as loud as we can. We want the best for everyone."

Lara and Kessler-Gross, along with freshman Abby Coquyt and junior Lydia Morrell, will also compete in Saturday's individual state meet.

Coquyt qualified in the all-around competition and will be joined in each event by at least one teammate.

Lara took first place in the vault at the section meet while also qualifying in the floor; Kessler-Gross was at the top of the podium in both beam and floor; and Morrell's performance on the bars earned her a first-place finish.

When the weekend comes to an end and the Cardinals take a moment to reflect on everything, they might realize that they just completed the best season in school history.

They're not quite yet thinking about that yet, though.

There's a state meet coming up.

Related Topics: GYMNASTICS
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