Three Evanston gymnasts — junior Jamie Otwell and freshmen Ava Axelrood and Katherine Luna — fell short of advancing out of the Stevenson Sectional meet Wednesday night.

That extends a dry spell that dates back to the 1999-2000 school year for the Wildkit girls program when it comes to qualifying for the Illinois High School Association state finals.

But Coach Meghan Koons’ squad ranked as one of the most improved teams in the state of Illinois in the month of January and the program is poised to return to the “glory years” of the late 1990s, when ETHS was well-represented at the state finals every year.

The Kits might not be watching the IHSA finals from the sidelines much longer. A promising freshman class, along with the return of two-sport standout Otwell (state qualifier in diving), should provide a solid base for future success even though the Wildkits compete in one of the state’s toughest conferences along with state level heavyweights New Trier and Glenbrook South.

Evanston surpassed the 130 point barrier as a team four times during the month of January, including a best of 131.75 in a Jan. 17 loss to Glenbrook South. And the junior varsity team is brimming with promise, with over half the gymnasts in the program just having completed their freshmen seasons.

“We had an enormous amount of new gymnasts coming into the gym this year, about half experienced (club competitors) and half new to the sport,” Koons pointed out. “They are all extremely hard-working and have helped change the dynamic of this team.

“All of these girls want it. They want to learn new skills, they want to perform well, they want to compete. And this attitude has become contagious throughout our gym.”

Axelrood, an all-around qualifier for the sectional and Luna (balance beam) joined Otwell (all-around) as sectional qualifiers but couldn’t clear the next postseason hurdle. Otwell fell just short of landing an at-large State berth on vault after tying for 13th place at Stevenson but her score of 9.15 didn’t make the cut.

She also tied for 16th on balance beam (8.65), placed in a tie for 22nd on uneven bars (8.425), and settled for 26th on floor exercise (7.8) on her way to a 19th place all-around showing with a score of 34.025.

Axelrood finished back in the pack all-around at 32.05, with a best score of 8.95 on vault, and Luna totaled an 8.35 on beam in her first postseason appearance.

The trio was attempting to represent Evanston at State for the first time since 1999-2000, when Jasmine Stone advanced for the third straight year as an all-around qualifier.  Stone and teammates Katie Laatsch and Liz Iacuzzi were all state qualifiers from 1997 to 2000 under former head coach Chester Jones, but no other Wildkit has made the trip since then.

Both Luna and Axelrood came onto the high school scene as experienced club competitors and Koons felt the two rookies handled the pressure of sectional competition as well as could be expected in a “score or go home” scenario.

“High school competition is a different experience from club,” noted Koons, “and there were some high nerves for them to shake off before performing. Both girls deal with their anxiety differently. Ava needs to talk through her focus points directly before saluting, while Katherine turns inward and silently reflects. Both girls are skilled at using any angst to their advantage.

“All in all I thought the girls performed pretty well. Some of the scoring seemed rather low compared to scores we have received throughout the season. Both Ava and Jamie had strong performances on vault, and I was very impressed with Katherine as she performed one of her best routines of the season.”

Otwell turned in another solid season after dealing with the physical adjustments that come early in the year when she switches from diving to gymnastics. “The first few weeks of the season she had to re-learn how to tumble and twist on floor exercise, because she was so used to twisting off a springboard,” Koons pointed out. “Her scores this year steadily improved as she regained her confidence. She’s a fierce competitor and she’s such a strong leader for us.”

Otwell’s mentorship helped her two first-year teammates, Axelrood and Luna, shine right from the moment they walked into the ETHS gym. They topped a strong class of freshmen that also included Honor Michal, Eden Drajpuch, Raya Goulding and Marina Kalinina as major contributors at both the JV and varsity levels.

And the best is yet to come. Koons definitely believes that.

“Both the varsity and junior varsity topped their high scores and scored their highest in the past month, and it is definitely a source of pride for us to see these girls working to their potential and earned the scores to prove it,” she said. “They pushed hard all the way through to the end of the season.

“I am excited about the future. We have a very young team and plenty of room to grow and excel. I have really high hopes for the future.”  

Dennis Mahoney is sports information director for Evanston Township High School.

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