MADISON – Winning five state championships in a row in anything isn’t easy.
But that’s exactly what the Hand girls’ gymnastic team has done. The Tigers captured their fifth consecutive Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference Class M crown last Saturday at Pomperaug High in Southbury.
Hand scored 137.3 points to take first place, while Darien was second with 134.125 points. Going into the Class M meet, Mercy was ranked second, but New Milford and Darien were expected to contend.
A year ago, Hand topped a co-op team consisting of gymnasts from Haddam-Killingworth, Coginchaug and Hale Ray, which finished as the runnerup.
Individually, Hand junior Erin Naclerio won the vault, balance beam and floor exercise.
In addition to winning its fifth straight Class M title, it was the 18th state title for the Tigers, who tied Simsbury for the most in Connecticut history.
“The history of this program is pretty deep,” said Hand coach Kelly Smith, who is in her 11th season at the helm of the Tigers. “The girls know the program’s history and are proud to represent Hand. They want to keep it going.”
Along with the Class M streak, tack on nine straight Southern Connecticut Conference championships and you certainly have a dynasty.
“It’s absolutely insane,” Hand senior tri-captain Samantha Mayhew said.
“The number demonstrates how hard we’ve worked in the gym,” senior tri-captain Olivia Finke said. “Right before they were about to announce the winners, I knew we had one of our best days we had all year.
The key to Hand’s success is depth. The Tigers don’t have one girl who can score near perfect 10s, but they have a group of six that can all score high. With four of the six scores counting in each event, there’s a margin of error as well. Two girls could have a bad performance in an event and it won’t matter.
“What makes us different from other teams is we have more depth,” Finke said. “We don’t have that one really good girl that pulls us through. We have six good girls that can all score well.”
With the track record Hand has, it’s also no surprise that the roster numbers keep on increasing.
“Over the last four years, the team has grown,” Mayhew said. “Knowing how good the team is and how well we get along helps. We have a junior who came out for the team for her first year this year.”
For Mayhew, Finke and the third tri-captain Noelle Bergere (who was sick Tuesday), it’s the end of their careers.
“It’s bittersweet and sad to see it’s over, but I’m glad to see we had an opportunity to win it (this year),” Mayhew said. “We knew the competition was there, but if we performed well, we could win it.”
Going into the season, Smith was unsure whether the streaks could continue.
“We had high hopes, but we’ve been hit hard with graduation the last two years,” Smith said. “We don’t go into a season expecting to win, but we hope we do. We’ve had a lot of sophomores and freshman help us.”
Hand earned a spot in the State Open, but is seeded fourth among the four teams. Woodstock Academy is the clear favorite to take the team title. It scored nine more points than any team in the class meets. Class L champ Greenwich is ranked second with Class L runnerup Trumbull is third. Three of the top four teams will move on to the New England championships this weekend
“It’s nice to know we earned the spot to be there,” Mayhew said. “The chances of us winning is slim to none. The other teams are so phenomenal. It will be fun to watch.”