The Warwick Vets gymnastics program has taken a leap the last two seasons, going 19-3 in dual meets after two consecutive winless campaigns before that.
And it looks like that was just the beginning.
A deep and skilled freshman class is joining the ranks this season, junior Candis Kowalik – the 2012 state champion – is healthy and ready to go after missing last year’s state meet with an injury, and some solid veterans are helping set the tone. Put it all together, and the ’Canes are shaping up as an early favorite for the Division II championship.
“As long as we stay solid as a group and stay healthy, I think we have a good shot at the division and hopefully states,” said head coach Stacy Capone-Melino.
The ’Canes beat Exeter/West Greenwich, Toll Gate and West Warwick on Sunday to improve to 6-0, good for first place in Division II. They’ve competed in three total meets and have scored big each time – 132.67 in their season opener, 130.27 on Saturday and 133.70 on Sunday. The only team that has come close to them so far is EWG – the defending D-II champ – which scored 126.20 on Sunday.
The scores also stack up to history. Since the Division II championship was introduced in 2003, only one team – Mt. Hope in 2010 – scored higher at the state meet than Vets did on Sunday.
“We definitely have a strong team,” Capone-Melino said.
But the ’Canes won’t get ahead of themselves. They’re focused on getting better and on becoming as strong as they can possibly be.
“Right now, we’re pulling from what we do have and we’re seeing who’s going all-around, who’s doing one or two events, their specialties,” Capone-Melino said. “We have to make sure we rotate people in and get everybody into their strongest spots.”
Leading the way for the ’Canes is Kowalik, who’s already the most accomplished gymnast in school history. She won the individual state championship as a freshman and was well on her way to a second title last year when a broken ankle suffered in the final meet of the regular season knocked her out of states.
She’s back and ready to chase another crown this year.
“Candis is healthy, ready to go,” Capone-Melino said. “She just throws everything she has every time. She looks great.”
In addition to her scores, Kowalik brings leadership to the table. The team’s freshmen have learned from Kowalik for years, while they came up through Warwick Dance & Gymnastics. It continues now that they’ve hit high school.
“She’s really doing a good job helping the younger guys out,” Capone-Melino said. “That’s important to them because they look up to her.”
The ’Canes are also getting guidance from senior captains Kayleigh Desjarlais and Michaela McNally. Both have been with the team for four years and can contribute in multiple events. Desjarlais was Vets’ top all-around scorer at the state meet last year.
“Both are captains,” Capone-Melino said. “They’ve been on the team since they were freshmen and they’ve been unbelievable with organizing and helping the kids out. They’re awesome.”
The ’Canes also have junior Sloan Kinney, who competed at states in the floor exercise last year, plus junior Paige Daniels and sophomores Erin Hunt and Ryenne Lonergan.
Then there are the freshmen, a group seven-deep with significant gymnastics experience. Danielle Breault, Tess Bussick, Ashley Clift, Tierra Frey, Haley Gayer, Katie Moore and Dayna Razza are all in the fold and contributing immediately.
Together, they give Vets a level of depth and gymnastics experience that was difficult to find just a few years ago.
“We have a big group of freshmen, so it’s going to be a nice four-year run,” Capone-Melino said. “They’re all good girls and they’ve done gymnastics for a long time. We’re actually having to sit people out because there aren’t enough spots. You can’t complain about that. It’s a nice problem to have.”
The scores have reflected the newfound depth. Vets typically scored in the 120’s last season, even when Kowalik was healthy. They haven’t dipped below 130 this season.
“If we can stick it out and have a solid meet on beam, then we’ll be in good shape,” Capone-Melino said. “And they’re really pushing it on the bars. We’re probably the only team in this division that has two girls who are swinging giants on bars. That’s a major advantage. That’s where we were weak last year.”
If it all comes together right, the rising ’Canes could climb to their highest point yet in 2014.
“We started strong,” Capone-Melino said. “We’ve just got to carry it out.”