BISMARCK — Months after the season has come to an end, the Dickinson High School gymnastics program continues to stack up awards.
Guiding the Midgets to their fourth consecutive state championship this past winter, head coach Kent Van Ells was selected as the Special Sports National Coach of the Year by the National High School Athletic Coaches Association on Wednesday, June 26. The award was given out during the NHSACA National Convention from the Ramkota Hotel in Bismarck.
Van Ells is the second head coach from Dickinson High to receive National Coach of the Year honors, joining the late Jack Carlson, who earned the Boys Track and Field award in 2003.
“I was excited about it,” Van Ells said. “I’ve been up for it, so I was prepared to hear someone else’s name, but it was exciting and rewarding … I don’t want to say it was a total surprise, I kind of thought it was possible. I felt like it was a cool thing to happen.”
Van Ells, who was named to the North Dakota High School Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2017 as well as to the Dickinson High School Hall of Fame in 2018, was among eight finalists for the Special Sports awards. The finalists came from the worlds of powerlifting, hockey, badminton, cheerleading, alpine skiing and, in Van Ells’ case, gymnastics.
The legendary Midgets head coach was up for the award three years ago. Victorious this time around, Van Ells feels like his win is a product of his team’s excellence in recent years.
Dickinson has won eight of the last 13 state champions. Throughout the decade, a Midgets gymnast has captured the state all-around title six times and a state championship within the four individual events on 17 occasions.
“I feel like in the last 12-13 years that we’ve had a real consistent first- or second-place team, in particularly the last seven years, where’s we’ve won six championships,” Van Ells said. “It’s become a culture of success where the girls expect to do well. I think the recent success in particular made it more likely to win an award like this. … It’s a phenomenon that’s developed. I always thought we had a quality program, but the winning culture is some more recent.”
Dickinson became just the third program in North Dakota to win four straight state championships, joining the likes of Fargo South (1977-83) and Minot (1991-94, 2009-12). However, completing the four-peat wasn’t forgone conclusion for the orange and black.
Hampered by injuries and the absence of junior Ayanna Fossum early in their quest, the Midgets didn’t reach their full potential until the middle of the season. Following a spectacular victory at the Rapid City Gym-O-Rama which the team put up a score of 149.2 on Jan. 19, Dickinson set a new program record one week later with a mark of 151.725 at the Fern Pokorny Memorial Invitational.
From there, the team won the West Region title and the team’s 13th state title. After years of being frustratingly close, Fossum capped her season with an state all-around triumph. She also captured the same distinction at the WDA meet. Dacia Rambousek was selected as the state’s Senior Athlete of the Year while fellow senior Meghan Ackerman was one of two recipients named Dickinson High Female Athlete of the Year.
“I would identify the Rapid City meet, that’s where everything started to click and feel like a championship team. They have won most of the meets anyway, but it was about that time that the quality as a team was really there. From then on, it seemed to really follow a trajectory that was pretty tough to stop … It was unusual that we peaked at midway, that was different from some previous years. It says a lot about the girls and their determination.”