The 2014 state meet was all about redemption for the Warwick Vets gymnastics team and junior Candis Kowalik. At Rhode Island College on Saturday, they found it, convincingly.
A year after Kowalik – the 2012 individual state champion – severely injured her ankle just before the state meet, dashing her hopes of a repeat title and Vets’ hopes of a team title, Kowalik returned to the top of the podium and helped bring her team up there with her. The ’Canes captured the Division II championship, the first gymnastics title in program history, with a season-high score of 136.275. Kowalik finished in first place in the state in all four events, claiming her second all-around title in three years.
In winning the crown, Kowalik also broke the Rhode Island Interscholastic League record for the highest all-around score at the state meet. Her 37.850 bettered the previous mark of 37.800 set by La Salle’s Meghan Fogarty in 2009.
Freshman Ashley Clift ended up on the podium as well, as she took third place in the floor event.
It was just about a perfect day for the ’Canes.
“We finally did it,” said senior captain Michaela McNally. “It’s really exciting. I couldn’t ask for a better senior year.”
Vets came into the state meet as the clear Division II favorite thanks to an unbeaten mark during the regular season, and the meet was never particularly close. Vets beat second-place Exeter-West Greenwich by almost eight full points and third-place West Warwick by nearly 13. The ’Canes were the favorites last year as well, but finished in third place with Kowalik out of the lineup.
The ’Canes’ overall score this year was the second-best in the state, behind only Division I champion La Salle, which scored 138.625. The top three scores in the state advance to the New England Meet, which will be held at Algonquin Regional High School in Connecticut on March 15. Vets will be there.
“We were focused on the team score, being higher each meet,” said head coach Stacy Capone. “I think our last meet was our highest before. This was a whole point, almost two points higher than that. Everyone just pulled it out. It was great. It was awesome.”
Kowalik, as usual, led the charge. She was the top-ranked gymnast heading into the state meet for the third consecutive year, and her sights were set on the meet record.
She didn’t disappoint.
Kowalik scored a 9.500 on vault, a 9.400 on bars, a 9.400 on beam and a 9.550 on floor. After just missing out on the state record two years ago with a 37.725, Kowalik knew she had the record when she saw her score posted from her floor routine, the final event of the day.
“This year, finishing off with a good floor routine like that, knowing what I needed and seeing the score go up, it was honestly such a great feeling,” Kowalik said. “It was a feeling of redemption last year with the terrible incident right before states.”
Her closest competition was North Kingstown’s Allison DiBiase, who finished well back with a 36.100. Kowalik became the ninth gymnast to win at least two state individual titles, and just the third to win them in non-consecutive years. She’ll try to become the fourth competitor in RIIL history to win three titles next year.
“She came in first in every event and she beat the state record,” Capone said. “It was pretty impressive. And she has one year left, so we’re pretty excited about that.”
But Kowalik alone didn’t win the team title, as Vets had plenty of depth to get the job done. Thanks to an influx of seven freshmen this year who all compete on the United States Gymnastics scene, the ’Canes had a group capable of raising the championship plaque.
Clift is at the top of the freshman list. The only gymnast on the team to compete all-around besides Kowalik, Clift finished 12th overall with a score of 34.125.
She nearly gave Vets a one-two finish on the floor, as her third-place score of 9.125 was just behind DiBiase’s second-place showing of 9.150. Clift also finished tied for 10th on the bars, 18th on the beam and 27th in the vault.
“We just stayed focused and did the best on everything that we could do,” Capone said. “We did better than we did in any other meet.”
Vets also had a number of individual qualifiers. In the vault, senior captain Kayleigh Desjarlais and freshman Tierra Frey tied for 19th with matching 8.400 scores. In the same event, freshman Katie Moore took 40th with an 8.200, freshman Tess Bussick was 44th with an 8.150 and freshman Danielle Breault was 45th with an 8.100.
Freshman Dayna Razza qualified in the floor event and took 25th with a score of 8.250.
“We started off rough our freshmen year,” Desjarlais said. “It’s a great feeling to be where we are.”
Vets’ worst event all season long was the beam, but that didn't show on Saturday. The team had only one fall, collectively, as it had its best day of the year in that event.
“It’s exciting when you see your team,” Kowalik said. “On beam, all season we weren’t that great. We were fall after fall. But today, everyone was hitting. To see the positive outcome and all the hard work coming together, it puts a smile on my face.”
Other Vets team members who contributed to the championship were Paige Daniels, Sloan Kinney, Erin Hunt and Haley Gayer.
“Our freshmen year we were scoring 90’s – we couldn’t even make it to 100,” McNally said. “Now here we are scoring 136, right below La Salle. That’s really exciting.”
It’s been a long road to get there, but the ’Canes are champs.
“Collectively, the team spirit is just unbelievable,” Capone said.
Pilgrim’s Emma Landroche also competed in the state meet, as she qualified in the floor event and tied for 22nd place with an 8.350 score.
Now Vets will set its sights on New Englands, where it won’t likely factor into the race for the team title but could still make its way onto the podium with a strong day.
Kowalik, on the other hand, will be one of the favorites to win the New England title. She came in second place in her freshman season.
“The girl above me was only like a tenth ahead,” Kowalik said. “I didn’t do my absolute best there – I did well – but I slipped on beam and almost fell off. Last year the scores were 37, so I think I have a pretty good chance of placing top-three again.”
The ’Canes will be looking to put the cherry on top of what has already been the best season in school history.
“I’m so proud of everyone that competed today,” Desjarlais said.