When Courtney Bondanza came into the gym as a seventh grader, coach Donna Aquino knew there was something unique about her.
Bondanza was a talented gymnast, there was no disputing that, but her quirky personality instantly drew her teammates together even as she entered her first year on the Lancaster varsity team.
"When she walked into the gym three years ago she caught everyone's attention, not just for her talent, but she is quite the character," Aquino said. "She is funny and humble. She definitely leads by her work ethic and sometimes is too hard on herself in practice. She's mature beyond her years as far as competition goes."
Talent, personality and hard work combined to make Bondanza one of the best high school gymnasts in the area. Last year, as an eighth grader, she broke two Lancaster school records and earned a New York State title in the vault.
Now, she's taking those expectations and using them to fuel her freshman season as the Lancaster team goes for its fifth straight Section VI title.
"There's a lot of very good gymnasts out there and I just want to do my best," Bondanza said. "I didn't have many injuries last year so I was able to work harder. This year there is definitely pressure. It definitely motivates me to do my best."
Bondanza broke the Lancaster school record on even bars with a 9.45 at the sectional meet, but her vault became her signature event. Her score of 9.525 not only won her the state title, but also set a Lancaster record.
"It's a unique vault that not a lot of girls do," Aquino said. "When you see it done well, it's really something and she nailed it at states."
"I learned [the vault] last year and it's new to me still," Bondanza said. "It's a front handspring on the vault and then I pop right off my hands to do a front flip and land. Vault is probably my favorite event. I love all the power you have to get and all the flipping."
The follow-up this year starts to become slightly difficult as Bondanza continues to grow. She's coming back from some knee and back injuries, not uncommon in growing gymnasts.
"When kids start to grow, the hope is they grow gracefully," Aquino said. "Sometimes it's tough to handle the new size, the extra length, especially in gymnastics. You like to be shorter to keep your center of gravity low to the ground."
Growing pains aside, Bondanza will help anchor a large Lancaster team looking to win its 12th sectional title since Aquino started coaching the team in 1988. The tradition of excellence and the focus on the team makes for a different environment for Bondanza, who also competes with her club team, Gymnastics Unlimited.
"Club team is way more individual than when we're here as a varsity team; we're just trying to come together as a team," Bondanza said. "We all cheer each other on and help each other go for different skills that we're afraid of."
With 24 members of the team this year, Lancaster boasts depth to go along with its tradition. Key members include junior Jennifer Thill, who placed ninth on the vault at the state meet along with senior Taylor Strauss, freshman Stephanie Mazur and eighth-grader MacKenzie Donner.
"The success really comes from the confidence they have in each other," Aquino said. "They push each other and when they're down, then pull each other back up. I like to think I have a calming affect on them. I'm not a screamer or a yeller. The girls are out there to do their best. They're ready physically. They just have to pull it together mentally."