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SAFER EQUIPMENT FOR GYMNASTS VAULTS THEM TO NEW HEIGHTS

At one time, a high school gymnast had to not only worry about sticking a landing, but also about whether or not she landed on a mat or a splintered wooden floor.

It's been 25 years since the first Section VI girls gymnastics championship and the sport has seen its fair share of changes.

Gone are the hardwood floors and tattered mats. In their place are spring floors and cushioned surfaces.

Today, high school gymnastics has taken a safety-first approach.

"Where to begin with the advancements?" said Section VI chairwoman and Lancaster coach Donna Aquino. "The improvements can be seen right down the line."

In the vault, girls used to run down hardwood floors toward the horse. Today, the running surface is padded and cushioned to avoid damage to legs, ankles and feet.

"The changes don't stop when the girls reach the horse," Aquino said. "Now, many of the horses have a spring to them, to increase momentum off the vault."

This increase in momentum, like many of the changes made for safety reasons, also has led to more difficult routines.

"With the improvement of the equipment, girls can do a great many things now that were near-impossible or very difficult in the past," Aquino said.

In the floor exercise, spring-matted floors for safety also have paved the way for higher jumps.

"I competed on those hardwood floors," Williamsville South coach Kathy Nardini said. "Sometimes the corners were turned up and you'd put mats down. Sometimes you would land on them, sometimes you wouldn't."

Formerly made of wood, balance beams have a padded surface that allows riskier dismounts and maneuvers.

"With added safety, a girl is more likely to try something new," Aquino said.

"I've got 6-year-olds who do the things I did in college," said Nardini, who has coached at South for 21 years following a successful collegiate career at Canisius. "Combined with better coaching, girls' skill levels have increased dramatically."

"A lot of the skills you're seeing now are similar to what only men used to do," said Kenmore East/West coach Colleen Fatta.

The improvements and the willingness to try new things have dictated a change in scoring.

"When the equipment improves and the girls' routines improve, some things that were at one time difficult become too common," Aquino said. "When this happens, the value of these moves has to decrease, or scores will be too high.

"We try to change our scoring system every Olympic year (every four years), in order to maintain a competitive level."

Making things competitive has been a goal of Section VI over the past years, especially since Aquino took over.

"We try to make gymnastics team-oriented and competitive at the high school level," Aquino said. "The scoring changes are done every four years, but we don't make high scores unattainable."

Section VI also reshuffles its division alignments every two years to sort out stronger and weaker teams.

This year, Division I consists of Grand Island, Hamburg, the combined team from Kenmore East/West, Lancaster, Lewiston-Porter, Williamsville North and Williamsville South.

Division II includes: Amherst, Maryvale, Orchard Park, Sweet Home and Williamsville East. Jamestown, which was slated to take part in Division II, was unable to find a coach and will not field a team this year.

Individually, seven members of last year's state team will be returning.

Kenmore's Lisa Scinta (eighth grade), Lindsey Marranca (sophomore) and Lisa Lauden all return to the defending sectional champions.

Scinta, a New York State All-Star, placed second in the balance beams and second in the vault for a 10th-place finish in the all-around competition. Marranca competed in vault, bars and floor while Lauden participated in the bars and floor.

Stephanie Shapiro, a junior who went to the state finals in 1997, also returns.

Williamsville South's Brittany Weisner (eighth grade) and Leanne Bolling (sophomore) return to a team that went 6-0 last year and 10-2 over the past two years.

Nardini also expects seventh-grader Alyissa Hasan to excel this year.

Amy Cucinotta, a freshman from Amherst, competed in the vault, beams, floor and all-around at states.

Hamburg's Lindsey Klaus, also a state competitor, returns to the undefeated Bulldogs (5-0). The senior placed fifth on the balance beams at states. Kassandra Kowalczyk, a sophomore, will compete in the all-around this year for the Bulldogs.

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