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New gymnastics coach looking to keep program on upward trend

Senior Alex Kirlin will be counted on to provide leadership for the Park Rapids-Nevis gymnastics team this season. Vance Carlson / Enterprise

James Sanchez has an ambitious goal for the Park Rapids-Nevis gymnastics team.

"This program is on an upward trend and I want to continue that," said Sanchez, who takes over for Rebecca Penning as the Panthers' head coach. "I heard this was one of the dominant programs in the area in the 90s and my goal is to get it back to that status."

This will be Sanchez's first year coaching a high school program. The 28-year-old coached club gymnasts in the lower levels for 10 years in Kansas City before moving to Park Rapids in June and coaching the summer recreation gymnastics program through Community Education this summer.

"I coached club where we had gymnastics year-round. A big obstacle is playing catch-up to towns that have clubs," said Sanchez. "We're going to focus on getting the fundamentals down and getting the girls' confidence up. I feel confident the girls will improve and be where they were at or a little ahead of where they were at last year."

The Panthers return a young team with only six gymnasts back who competed on varsity last season. That group features seniors Randi Nielsen and Alex Kirlin, juniors Erin Tooker and Olivia Ulvin, freshman Abby Kirlin, and eighth grader Grace Litzau.

That group helped the Panthers post an average team score of 115.35 with averages of 32.38 in vault, 29.61 in floor exercise, 28.08 on balance beam and 25.28 on uneven parallel bars. Park Rapids had a team high of 123.825 and ended the season with a 117.00 to place seventh at the Section 8A meet. The Panthers went 1-7 in dual meets.

Tooker was the only gymnast who competed in all 10 meets last season, finishing second on the team with a 29.60 all-around average. Tooker led the team with a 7.02 average on bars while adding averages of 7.97 in vault, 7.57 in floor and 7.05 on beam. At the section meet, Tooker finished 23rd in all-around with a 29.45 behind an 8.30 in vault, a 7.65 in floor, a 6.80 on beam and a 6.70 on bars.

Abby Kirlin placed 27th in all-around at the section meet as an 8.10 in vault, a 6.95 on beam, a 6.85 in floor and a 4.65 on bars led to a 26.55. Kirlin competed in nine meets, posting averages of 8.11 in vault, 6.97 in floor, 6.91 on beam and 5.09 on bars for a 27.06 all-around average.

Nielsen competed in eight meets and tallied averages of 8.18 in vault, 5.99 on beam and 6.63 in floor.

Ulvin made her section debut with a 6.75 in floor while posting a 6.99 average in that event in four varsity meets.

Litzau competed in three varsity meets on bars, finishing with a 4.08 average.

Alex Kirlin had a 4.70 average in two varsity meets on beam.

The Panthers have two key gymnasts to replace with the graduation of Olivia Fischer and Jasmine Cease. Fisher was the team's top all-around performer with a 31.14 average behind averages of 8.39 in vault, 7.75 in floor, 7.58 on beam and 6.96 on bars while Cease competed in vault at the section meet.

Looking to compete for varsity time will be senior Sam Fraki; junior Brianne Nelson; freshman Mary Zimmerman; eighth graders Chelsea Dennis, Allyson Holmer, Haley Nevala, Angelina Porter and Valarie Tooker; and seventh graders Natalie Backmann, Shelby Billing-Kelly, Mackenzie Hagen, Morgan Koppelman and Halle Landstrom.

"We set some team goals of winning at least one dual meet and getting a team score above 120," said Sanchez, who will be assisted by Cyrus Gust and Emily Boedigheimer. "We have hopeful expectations, but I realize this will be a work in progress. My main goal is to see the girls continue to improve and for the program to continue on an upward trend. My long-term goal is to take the program to the next level."


Dec. 2 - at Morris Invitational, 12 noon. Dec. 8 - at Bemidji, 7:30 p.m. Dec. 11 - at Perham, 7:30 p.m. Dec. 15 - at Detroit Lakes, 7:30 p.m.

Jan. 6 - Park Rapids Invitational, 10:30 a.m. Jan. 13 - at Moorhead Invitational, 9 a.m. Jan. 18 - *Detroit Lakes, 7:30 p.m. Jan. 26 - at Long Prairie-Grey Eagle, 7:30 p.m. Jan. 30 - *Detroit Lakes, 7:30 p.m.

Feb. 8 - Bemidji, 7:30 p.m.

*=home meet