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How the Section VI gymnastics team put on the best performance in state history

All eyes were on Reilly Gruttadauria as she approached the vault. More than 500 spectators, 120 fellow gymnasts, a few dozen coaches, and, most importantly, the two judges awaited the final event of the NYSPHAA championships on Saturday at Cold Spring Harbor High School on Long Island.

Gruttadauria, an eighth-grader at Mill Middle School in Williamsville, needed only to avoid a miss on the vault to secure a state title for the Section VI team.

When she stuck the landing of a Yurchenko layout, “the judges were sitting there with their mouths dropped,” said Williamsville South coach Kurt Stumpf, who has coached the sectional team since 1979.

Gruttadauria’s near perfect score of 9.9 on the vault set state and sectional records, and the five Section VI vaulters broke another state record with an aggregate score of 47.9.

The Section VI team entered the vaulting portion of the competition trailing Section III by five-tenths of a point. They went on to win the section’s sixth state championship, and fifth in eight years by nearly three points.

And at the awards ceremony, the Section VI gymnasts learned that their overall score of 187.905 points had broken the state record (previously 186.776) held by Section XI since 2003.

“It was a surprise to all the girls when they heard that,” sectional chair Joe Buscaglia said. “They were screaming and jumping around and congratulating each other. We thought we could win but we never thought that record was possible.”

“Most of these girls were not even born yet when the previous record was set,” Frontier coach Jill Wierzba said. “The whole team pulled together and had one strong routine after another. Everybody got in their own little zone and away we went.”

Buscaglia believes both the team record and Gruttadauria’s vault record could stand for a while.

“They didn’t just break the record by a couple-tenths, they beat it by a couple points,” Buscaglia said. “You never know what the future holds, all these young girls coming up and training hard, but I think this record is going to be very difficult to beat.”

Frontier seventh-grader Lea Philarom won the all-around title at the 2019 NYSPHAA gymnastics championships. (Contributed photo)

Section VI was led by all-around champion Lea Philarom of Frontier. She became the first seventh-grader from Western New York to win the state all-around title, and her score of 38.125 was the second-highest in Section VI history after Williamsville North’s Madison Penetrante, who won last year’s all-around title at states with a 38.255 total.

Philarom, who qualified for states in floor exercise and vault during the sectional championship meet in October, was pulled up to compete in the all-around because senior teammates Gabbi Gare (Williamsville South) and Zoe Kyriakopoulos (Williamsville North) were unable to compete due to ankle injuries.

“It feels really great because it’s my first year so I wasn’t sure what was going to happen or how well I’d do,” Philarom said. “I was just trying to have fun with my teammates because it was states and everyone told me it was really fun. I just relaxed and didn’t need to stress.”

Philarom placed second on the balance beam (9.55) and floor exercise (9.525), third on the vault (9.5) and sixth on the uneven parallel bars (9.55) to become the sixth gymnast from Section VI to win an all-around state title and fourth in six years. Jackie Brummer (Sweet Home) won four straight from 1979-82.

“She did absolutely amazing,” said Penetrante, the Section VI champion. “It was so impressive and I was so proud of her.”

Philarom was part of a youth movement for the Section VI team.

Ava Schiff, an eighth-grader on the Williamsville South team, placed second all-around with a score of 37.9 and won the balance beam with a 9.6, which is tied for the third-best score in section history. Schiff also placed fifth on the beam (9.550) and bars (9.4), and seventh on floor exercise (9.350).

Frontier freshman Cali Czarcinski gave Section VI a 1-2-3 finish on the beam with her score of 9.35. Czarcinski’s all-around score (36.575) gave the section five in the top eight. Penetrante placed sixth (37.425) and Gruttadauria was seventh (37.050). Another seventh-grader from Frontier, Kayla Gleason, placed in the top 11 on floor exercise (9.3), vault (9.25) and beam (9.1). Lancaster junior Alison Wojcieshowski placed in the top 10 on bars (9.2).

“Our strength was our depth,” Buscaglia said. “In gymnastics, it’s very hard hitch your routines with minimal or no mistakes. And it doesn’t matter if you have two superstars if the other four girls are mediocre. Every girl that went up had the consistency to hit their score. Of the 24 routines we were doing, we missed two.”

Penetrante, the lone senior who competed, took third on the vault (9.7), tied for third on floor (9.525), eighth on beam (9.150), and 12th on bars (9.05). All of her scores counted for the team total.

“I didn’t score as well as last year but I felt comfortable and I felt more like a leader this time helping all the younger girls,” Penetrante said. “I loved being a part of it. It was super fun and a great way to end my high school career.”

“There is no way we could have won without Madison,” Buscaglia said. “She was able to help the younger girls compete the way they did. She’s been there and she knew what to expect and was able to give them support. We will feel her absence next year.”

The injured seniors also provided guidance for their younger teammates. Gare was the all-around runner-up at sectionals and holds the third-highest all-around score in section history. Kyriakopoulos won the state all-around title in 2017 and holds the Section VI record on floor (9.85).

“They were the biggest cheerleaders ever,” Stumpf said.

Following the fall gymnastics season, the Section VI team came together for twice-weekly practices at Stumpf’s Gymnastics Center in Williamsville starting in January.

“We like them to get to know each other and form that friendship and bond that makes them a better team,” Buscaglia said. “Gymnastics is an individual sport but at the state championships, you are competing as a team.”

In a sport with so many twists and turns, Section VI can’t count on the team performing this well again. But the number of young gymnasts who rose to the occasion on their first trip to the state meet gives the coaches high hopes.

“It’s very difficult for seventh- and eighth-graders to place at the state meet,” Stumpf said. “For them to do as well as they did is very satisfying. It gives us a bright future down the road.”

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