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With added depth, Raiders look to build off of outstanding year

With added depth, Raiders look to build off of outstanding year With added depth, Raiders look to build off of outstanding year

The Medford gymnastics team ended last season feeling both the euphoria of being WIAA Division 2 state qualifiers and the disappointment of wondering what might have been had they taken a healthy team to the championship meet.

This season begins with the goal of trying to find out what the Raiders can fully achieve.

With at least three letter winners from last year’s team still on board and an impressive crew of freshman newcomers, there is no question Medford is capable of another season-ending trip to Wisconsin Rapids for both individual and team competition at state.

Fourth-year head coach Steve Cain said the squad –– which is now officially a three-school co-op between Medford, Colby and Gilman –– is definitely deeper than it was a year ago and should better be able to sustain some hits to the lineup, should they arise.

But there is still a step-by-step process that must be followed to get back to where the Raiders were last February and March when they won the Great Northern Conference’s Small Division championship and finished second behind Ashland at the WIAA Division 2 Antigo sectional.

“The girls have goals,” Cain said. “I put up a goal chart for each meet. That’s what the girls need to do. They fill out that goal chart for each meet and then, of course, they have to document their achievements. That will help them with preparations for those meets.”

The first of those meets is Medford’s second annual Hot Cocoa Invitational, set for Saturday, Dec. 7 at Medford Area Elementary School. The Raiders will welcome Great Northern Conference rivals Mosinee, Rhinelander and Chequamegon to the meet as well as Escanaba, Mich. The first events start at 9 a.m.

Medford starts the year with 16 gymnasts of varying experience levels and abilities. The numbers were boosted by influx of new sophomores looking to try the sport for the first time and the freshmen who bring years of club experience. Heading the list are sophomores Brooklyn Bilz and Makala Ulrich.

Bilz was the GNC Small Gymnast of the Year, winning the all-around, floor exercise and uneven bars titles. Ulrich was second in the GNC Small Division in all four events and in the allaround standings.

Bilz later finished 11th in the state bars competition and 14th among Division 2 state all-arounds. Ulrich, unfortunately, saw her season end following the sectional meet, but has bounced back quite well after off-season knee and shoulder surgeries. She set a new school record score of 9.2 on vault last January at Antigo. Kara Hudak returns as the team’s lone senior. She competed at team state on the bars and served as an all-around for the team in several meets. Junior Lydia Sigmund is also back after her year ended in late December due to injury.

“The girls that are re- turning, Kara, Lydia, Brooklyn, Makala, they definitely have a new spirit to them, a new maturity for the sport, for the team, for themselves as far as what they want to accomplish,” Cain said. “That’s been exciting to see. I think what helps too is most of these kids help coach kids in club. It’s like they get it. They understand what I as a coach, am trying to accomplish and what I’m trying to get them to achieve.”

Cain said the Raiders will start slowly with Ulrich, but her “slow” still should allow her to score well against her peers in the early going.

“She’s got the full go-ahead from the doctors and she is performing skills right now that I’m pretty amazed at, which means she’s on track,” Cain said. “We’re not going to throw her into a lot of twisting skills at the beginning of the season. We’ll see how it goes. I don’t want to take any chances with her. But that kid can take the most basic skills and perform a routine that is spot-on and has beautiful form and that’s all she needs. She just needs to connect everything. She can do that and she’ll be great.”

Unfortunately, the injury luck might not be so good for junior Megan Wanke, who competed well for Medford at state in three team events and individually on the balance beam. Right now, Cain said, it’s not known if she’ll be able to return.

Katelyn Malchow, the team’s lone Gilman representative, Kennedy Bilz, the Colby rep, Avery Purdy, Anna Wanke, Brooke Wegerer, Kiarah Behling and Kylie Vasicek are among the freshmen who put a lot of time into the sport in youth club competition. Those additions are going to make filling out a varsity lineup quite challenging for Cain and assistant coach Marisa DuBois.

“We have plenty of varsity spots filled and beyond,” Cain said. “It’s going to be tough figuring out that lineup. It’s going to be a good tough.”

Sophomore newcomers to the sport include Kadia Gehrke, Jessalyn Holub, Olivia Krug, Abbi Potocnik and Alicia Jochimsen.

“We have a very diverse team this year,” Cain said. “A lot of new faces, a lot of interest in the sport, a lot of excitement for it.”

The added depth certainly means there are more routines to create, build and refine as the season goes on. Cain said the coaches around the state have been getting the message that judges may be looking for things to be more precise this season.

“Things are becoming tighter,” he said. “There’s just more of an awareness of the technical aspect of the sport. You just can’t go on the bar and just do a clear hip circle. It has to be a clear hip circle with some amplitude. It has to have some dynamics to it that resonate and are profound. It’s got to be big. They’re looking for degrees. There’s deductions for this many degrees, this many degrees. Judges always have done that, but this year they’re putting it out there that this is what we need to see. I think it’s because of the fact that so many girls are coming into high school from club programs for so many years that they’re looking at that like there’s no reason why the girls shouldn’t be able to be more competitive on those technical aspects.”

The Raiders’ regular-season schedule is exactly the same as last year’s with GNC duals against Chequamegon, Lakeland, Mosinee and Rhinelander, a GNC crossover dual with Marshfield and invitationals at Rhinelander, Valders, Antigo and Ashland as well as the Dec. 7 home meet. Chequamegon hosts this year’s GNC meet on Feb. 22 and Antigo is again the sectional host on Feb. 28, where a top-two finish would again send Medford to state.

“We have a team that has goals for what we want to accomplish,” Cain said. “Of course we always want to go to conference and leave on top. They of course want to take the team to state. Is that realistic? Yes, most definitely.”