MADISON >> It’s a Thursday evening, and there’s a constant stream of movement inside the Polson Middle School gymnasium.
Hand senior Kendall Jerzyk is in the middle of her floor routine near the back of the brightly lit gym, her music playing in the background. A handful of teammates cheer her on.
Straight ahead is senior Julie Keenan running down a long blue mat, racing toward the vault.
There are a few Tigers on the beams in the left corner. Others are scattered throughout, stretching or doing abdominal workouts. At the center of it all is head coach Kelly Smith.
It’s organized chaos. But it’s what has led the Hand gymnastics squad to 14 state titles, a feat unmatched by any other program in school history.
“I like to think I run a pretty tight ship,” Smith said.
According to the eighth-year coach, the Tigers have either the best or one of the best squads she’s had in her tenure. Hand has nine seniors after losing just one to graduation last year. The Tigers are undefeated (5-0) heading into Thursday’s home meet at 6 p.m. against Foran and RHAM.
They are in pursuit of back-to-back Class M state championships.
Smith knows her team has plenty of talent, but she credits the year-round effort her girls put in as the reason they meet the lofty expectations Hand’s tradition has created.
“These (seniors) have never lost an SCC title, so it’s just expected,” Smith said.
“We’re going to go in, we want to win, we’re going to do everything we can to win; and we do, usually.”
Smith thinks the tradition and expectations at Hand are what help separate it from other programs in the state.
“I don’t know what other coaches think,” Smith said with a slight shrug. “I think other programs are structured similarly. I think it’s more the atmosphere and they are working year round. They want to do well and they know the tradition of the team is to do well. It’s ingrained.”
A typical Hand practice starts at 5 p.m. The 24 members of the squad practice for three hours, five days a week. The beginning of the session starts with a team stretch, followed by a short meeting. Smith said sometimes they go running outside at the beginning of practice if the weather cooperates. The girls then practice anywhere from two to four events a day.
“We try to get to as many as possible,” Smith said.
Smith said sometimes she’ll group the girls and have them rotate events. Other times she’ll tell them what she wants done.
“They are pretty diligent in moving from event to event and doing the things they know they need to do to be meet ready. And that seems to be working. We’ve been doing that mostly this year.”
Added Kendall Goodman: “We have to stay to our standards. It’s basically working hard all the time.”
The Tigers’ practices are unique. Smith, a former Hand gymnast, makes sure to be involved in some way.
After Jerzyk finishes a full floor routine, she moves to a dance through that involves sprints diagonally across the floor. Smith jumps in and runs along with her to give an extra push. Then Smith and Jerzyk engage in a push drill, locking arms on each other’s shoulders while moving across the floor. It’s mental, and designed to work cardio endurance.
“Usually after a floor routine you are dead tired,” Keenan said. “When she runs with us and then pushes us, it really helps come competition time.”
Smith also uses an iPad to record the performances. She then goes over video with her gymnasts. Smith said she got the iPad a few years ago and has all the meets filmed. The girls watch their routines after.
“It has been really helpful because sometimes a coach can tell you 10 times that your legs are bent and you can’t feel it,” Smith said. “But when you see it, you realize you need to fix it.”
A practice will end with 30-45 minutes of conditioning. But not all sessions are this intense.
If the next meet is far off in the future, Smith will let the girls play a little bit, which keeps them fresh, interested and excited about coming to the gym.
“It’s a sport that you strive for perfection, and you do numbers and numbers and numbers and sometimes you need to break out of that,” Smith said. “(Sometimes it’s) more laid back and the kids play a little. One of our kids got a new skill on beam and now it’s going to go in. We didn’t necessarily know it was going to be ready. So a play day helps see where we are going.”
Smith said a lot of what the team does depends on the dynamic of the team. But she won’t stray from certain traditions that have made Hand a powerhouse program.
The team always walks in to “Eye of the Tiger.” They have a “crazy leotard” day. They go to a college meet together once a year. They have pasta parties.
“I like to carry on some of those traditions, even back when I was a gymnast and before,” Smith said.
One element this squad is hoping to add to the Hand tradition is making the New England Championships as a team. Smith said they haven’t been there since 2006, the year before she took over.
“The pressure definitely helps us,” said Keenan, referring to an impressive 140.7 score at the Pomperaug Invitational, the first meet of the season.
“You can’t control what other teams do,” Kennan said. “You can just control what your team does.”
And as usual, Hand is in control.