After winning a share of the Wright County Conference title last year, it’s no surprise that the Watertown-Mayer gymnastics team enters this season with high expectations. After all, the team lost only one senior from last year’s squad, and returns almost all of its regular varsity contributors.
But as strong as the Royals expect to be this season, repeating at WCC champions isn’t among the team’s goals. That’s because Watertown-Mayer — which competes in the Minnesota River Conference for every other sport except swimming — was asked to leave to the Wright County Conference this season.
With no Minnesota River Conference gymnastics, the Royals will be without a home this season, though their schedule will still include all their former WCC rivals. The Royals just won’t be eligible to win a conference title or any of the all-conference accolades.
So, without a conference title to shoot for, longtime head coach Steve Hangartner said his team did the most logical thing it could. It set its sights even higher.
“They’ve kind of risen above that,” Hangartner said of the difficult situation. “They were kind of bummed at first, but their goal is to win the state tournament. Right now, they have rated at No. 21, but New Prague is standing in the way. They’ve been runners up the last two years in a row, and they’re in our section. We’re shooting for them. That’s kind of our whole thing right now. We’re gearing toward that. We know if we can win our section, then we should have a shot at winning the whole thing.”
Hangartner said he was somewhat surprised to learn that his team would no longer be able to compete in the WCC, the only conference in which the Royals have competed during Hangartner’s 25 years as team’s the coach. Other teams have been able to remain in the conference even after switching conference’s in other sports, but after one year of that type of arrangement, the Royals were given the boot.
Still, Hangartner said it’s hardly fazed his team, and he’s been amazed by the amount of work his athletes have put in during the offseason. He said many of the gymnasts have worked out in the mornings at 5:30 a.m., and during a recent practice, stayed until 10 p.m.
“We have pretty high expectations,” Hangartner said. “I feel they’ve worked harder than any team in the state this year. They have really dedicated their time.”
There’s plenty of reasons for the Royals’ expectations to be sky high. Although they don’t have a single senior on the roster, the team returns two state qualifiers in Brooke Leaf and Katie Heilman, as well as four other returning letter winners that boast a wealth of talent and experience.
Leaf, a junior, is actually a two-time state qualifier who competed in the all-around and on the balance beam at state last year. Heilman, a freshman, competed on vault at state last year as an eighth grader.
Leaf also earned honorable mention all-conference honors last season, along with Tina Scanlon and Caitlin Duske, both of whom also return this year. Also returning is Megan McCain, who earned honorable-mention all-conference honors last season, as well as Ally Matrella, who will serve as a captain this year along with Leaf and McCain. Caitlin Kammerer also returns to the team this year after seeing some varsity time last season.
While Hangartner said his six returning letter winners would see the bulk of the varsity action this year, he stressed that many of the younger gymnasts would get chances to compete at the varsity level. Hangartner said he hopes to use many meets as an opportunity to rest some of the regular varsity competitors.
If you’re doing meets all the time, all you’re ever doing is competing. You need time to just work reps and practice,” Hangartner said. “You also get beat up. It’s kind of like football. You need recovery time, mentally and physically. You’re taking all this pounding, and then you have a meet again the next day. So this year I’ll be shifting a lot of younger kids in to compete.”
Hangartner said the team’s score could vary widely throughout the season because of that. However, that’s a luxury he has this year in part because the team doesn’t have to worry about winning conference meets or where it sits in the standings.
“There are times in meets where we’re limping in on one leg, but it’s against Waconia, so you have to try to beat them,” Hangartner said. “Not that I’d ever put anybody in danger, but sometimes it would be nicer to hold them out. You see that in football all the time, where it’s nice to hold them out and give them one more week of rest. It might be a blessing that we’re not in (a conference).”
The Royals will get their first action of the season on Friday night, when they host Rockford at 6 p.m. in the auxiliary gym.