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Press Photos by Royal McGregor Dickinson sophomore Acacia Fossum performs her balance beam routine during the DHS Triangular on Feb. 7 at DHS gymnasium.

Brimming with confidence: Dickinson enters season with high expectations after winning state title

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The wait is over.

After opening the previous five seasons as the state’s second best, the Dickinson High gymnastics team enters the season as defending state champions.

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Prior to winning a state championship, the Midgets were runner-up five straight times to Minot.

With a state title under the team’s belt, Dickinson head coach Kent Van Ells said the girls are confident, but he knows it isn’t going to be a walk in the park. The Midgets open their season in the Dickinson High Invitational at 5:30 p.m. Friday.

“It was frustrating at times in the previous years, especially when we were really close,” said Van Ells, who enters his 31st year as the Midgets’ head coach. “We knew we had a really good group last year, but you always have to prove it and they did.

“Coming in this year, as a group, they are more confident and they feel like they can be the top team in the state again.”

The Midgets return three gymnasts who finished in the top 15 in the state all-around, including three-time defending all-around state champion Acacia Fossum. The other two are senior Mikaela Kessel and sophomore Keana Kudrna.

“Everyone got a taste of what it’s like to win a state championship and we want to do it again,” Kessel said.

Fossum, a sophomore from Richardton, is one of two gymnasts to ever win three state all-around titles in North Dakota. The other gymnast to win three state titles is former Dickinson standout Robin Huebner.

When Fossum’s career began as a seventh-grader, she didn’t expect to be a three-time all-around champion.

“When I came in as a seventh-grader, I didn’t really know what you could win,” she said with a smile. “But now I want to keep adding them on. I know the competition is going to be tough this year and I know I have to hit if I want to win.”

An obstacle Fossum hadn’t faced in high school gymnastics until last year was overcoming an injury.

Before the start of the 2012-13 season, Fossum suffered a leg injury that limited her from attempting new skills she had learned during the summer. She managed to stay away from the injury bug late in the season.

“Because of my injury last year, I got scared about a couple of things and this summer I got those things back and couple more,” Fossum said. “When I had to sit out, I thought about how hard I wanted to work and get back into the gym. Once I got back into the gym, I just remembered that I could be sitting out and hit instead of working. That just pushed me to work harder every time.”

Kessel is also returning with a state individual title in hand.

She won the floor exercise title with a 9.767, beating Bismarck Century’s Jessica Gabriel and Fossum by one-tenth of a point. Kessel also finished ninth in the all-around.

The injury bug also bit Kessel last season. The senior suffered a concussion during her uneven bars routine on Jan. 5 in Fargo. Van Ells said Kessel has slowly been able to get back to 100 percent on the bars.

“She held back a little bit on bars after the concussion, but she’s added a little more confidence on bars,” he said.

Kessel and Jenna Mueller are the team’s two senior captains. In her career, Mueller has finished with pair of top-three finishes in the beam at third place in 2012 and runner-up in 2011.

“I’ve had Jenna by my side forever,” Kessel said. “It’s great to have another senior to help lead the team. I know I couldn’t do it alone, so I’m really happy I have Jenna with me.”

Kudrna had a breakout season last year, finishing in a tie for sixth place in the all-around. During the state tournament’s team competition, Kudrna landed a vault which would have captured the individual title. However, she couldn’t recreate the vault on individual day.

Nonetheless, Kudrna couldn’t have asked anything more out of last season. She said it was the first time in three years she’s cried tears of joy instead of tears of sorrow.

“I’ve never cried happy tears before,” she said with smile. “Ending with that high note in our season was definitely a really good thing to have.”

Van Ells said last year was a special season, because the team had the magic five. With rules stipulating a team needs only tally four all-around scores to win a team title, Dickinson had the ability to use the combination of different gymnasts throughout the year.

The luxury of the magic five isn’t there anymore with the graduation of Chantal Urlacher and Mckenzie Kostelecky.

“When all five were healthy, it made it very comfortable to compete,” he said. “With two of them being seniors and now that they are gone, it’s going to be a bit of a difference.”

However, Van Ells said the status of the team’s other two main scorers is unknown. The Midgets won’t have junior Jill Mueller, who is dealing with a stress fracture, until after Christmas break.

Dickinson is going to rely on a collection of one freshman, three eighth-graders and two seventh-graders. The gymnast with the most varsity experience is eighth-grader Faith Beck from Dickinson Trinity.

“We are going to have to rely on some people that we haven’t had to rely on before,” Van Ells said. “Jill would be our fourth and we expect her to be our fourth after she recovers from a stress fracture. She isn’t doing too much on it right now until after Christmas. It’s a little bit of an unknown right now.”

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