SYRACUSE — Throughout Saturday’s home sectional, Wawasee head coach Nika Prather tried not to think about the fact that it could be her last meet at the head of the Lady Warriors gymnastics program.
Then, prior to the awards ceremony came the announcement recognizing her 33 years of service — which included seven sectional titles and a roughly 66 percent winning percentage — and it finally sunk in. Fortunately for Prather, she’ll helm the program for at least one more week.
While the Warriors bowed out of the team season, senior Aundreya Wegener made the cut out to next Saturday’s Huntington North Regional on the floor with a sixth-place score of 9.275. DeKalb won the team title with a score of 105.750, just .75 points ahead of runner-up Angola, while Plymouth surprised many in the field with a 103.825 for third place and the final team appointment to the regional round of the tourney. Wawasee finished sixth with a 96.3, and Warsaw placed eighth with an 87.650.
“I tried not to think about it. I just wanted to enjoy the moment and not think about that, not until they announced it and brought it to my attention,” explained Prather. “But I’m just really grateful that Aundreya got out, so it’s not the end. We get to keep going another week, and I’m happy about that. And I’d be really happy if she made it on to the state championships.”
Headed into Saturday’s sectional, Wegener’s best prospect at advancement was on the beam, but an uncharacteristic pair of falls there — in Wawasee’s first event of the day – left her with a score of 7.550, only good enough for 21st place in the field. Next up for the Warriors was the floor exercise, which Wegener and Prather knew represented the senior’s next best shot at a ticket to regional. Once there, Wegener worked through the obvious tension for her 9.275 and what would eventually become the sixth best score of the day, although the Warriors had to wait all day to find out for sure.
“We really thought she’d make it on on balance beam for sure. So after that it’s like ‘Oh, great.’ We had to try to keep her up, keep her positive because she knew that that’s her event,” recalled Prather. “But going in (to the floor exercise) you could tell that she was really anxious, and she was like ‘I don’t know if I can do this.’ So for her to pull it off, it’s like ‘Oh, thank goodness.’ We just kept watching the scores because we were the second group up on floor. We knew that she had a shot at it, so we just kept watching scores — now she’s in third, now she’s in fifth. Finally after Elkhart Central had their last girl, we realized she got sixth, and at that point we’re thinking if we can just hang on.”
“I’m just so thrilled,” Prather continued. “It’s funny because when they get to be seniors they think ‘I’m done. I’m over it. I’m just ready to move on.’ But then when it comes to this point there’s just like ‘I don’t want to be done. I don’t want it to end.’”
The Warriors knew they were facing an uphill climb in the team competition and would likely need to nail every event to make the top three cut out. An unfortunate start on beam that saw Wawasee gymnasts record a total of eight falls, and they wound up with a score of 22.350 on the apparatus, effectively taking them out of the race in the first rotation of the day.
“I thought if we would do really well in every event that there was a possibility, but we would’ve had to hit every event. We had I think eight falls on beam, so that’s two points right there,” explained Prather. “Being the first event, it’s really hard when you want to work the nerves out doing other things and then get on beam. I think they all felt that pressure, but somebody has to be first. It’s just the luck of the draw.”
Wawasee’s best finish overall came on vault, where the Warriors scored a 26.100. Wegener’s 9.000 there was a team best, while sophomore Talie Kuhl recorded an 8.650, freshman Olivia Ousley scored an 8.450, and junior Emma Ebright recorded an 8.4. The Warriors put up a 26.050 on the floor and a 21.8 on the uneven bars. Wegener finished 11th in the all around competition with a cumulative score of 33.725, while Kuhl finished 15th with a 32.450.
If Wawasee’s chances at a team berth out of Saturday’s sectional were slim, Warsaw’s were even slimmer. With only three gymnasts on the roster and one of them — senior Daylen Turner — hindered by a back injury, head coach Tonya Douglass knew her Lady Tigers were unlikely to slip into the top three.
“We did about as well as I thought we would. Everybody went out there and did the best they could today,” Douglass said. “When you’ve got three and one doesn’t do well, we don’t have much to fall back on.”
Turner opted to forego the balance beam due to her back injury and was unable to score in the all around competition. She threw an 8.600 on vault, a 7.325 on bars and a team-best 8.975 on the floor, good enough for 11th place there.
“Daylen was struggling with a back injury but was able to go three for four. We decided not to do beam just to not risk further injury,” explained Douglass. “It’s her senior year so I know she was a little bummed about that, but she ultimately knew that was the best decision.”
Warsaw’s best finish in the all-around was submitted by sophomore Sydni Purvis, who scored a 32.325 there, an 8.725 on vault her highlight of the day. Freshman Erika Bugg scored a 30.425 in the all around totals.
“Sydni and Erika and Daylen, between the three of them, that’s all we’ve been all season, and they’ve worked well together. They support each other, they cheer each other on,” Douglass said. “When I’ve asked them to try new things, they’ve been willing to try those new things trying to go out of their comfort zone. Overall, I’m proud of all three of them, and I’m proud of our season with the three of us. We’re just losing Daylen. I’ve got two sophomores and a freshman this year, so we’re a young team for the most part. I’ve got some eighth graders coming in so hopefully we can build and keep moving forward.”
Also Saturday, NorthWood’s lone gymnast, freshman Emilee Conrad, scored a 30.650 in the all around, finishing 20th in the field. Her 8.325 on the floor represented her best score of the day.
Next week’s Huntington North Regional will convene Saturday at noon. Again, the top six finishers in each event and top three overall teams will earn the right to advance to the state finals at Ball State on Saturday, March 14. Wegener and Prather will continue at least one more week, although Saturday’s sectional was Prather’s last team meet as head of the program, and she reflected on her time at Wawasee following the tilt.
She expressed some ambivalence about leaving the program, but with her husband recently retired and grandchildren in Indianapolis, she decided it was simply time.
“I’m going to miss it tremendously. I’ve been here half my life — 33 years — so it’s a part of who I am,” said Prather, who expressed special gratitude to assistant coach Sarah Wegener. “I don’t know how I’m going to define me without it, but I’ll figure it out. You have to retire sometime. People said I was going to retire the day I died. That was really our joke — they said they were going to have a wake-slash-retirement party and have punch and cookies and say ‘Nika retired today.’ But it’s just the stage in my life.”