Another state championship weekend has arrived on the North Dakota high school gymnastics landscape and, as has been the case through much of his tenure, Kent Van Ells heads a team that is believed to be the favorite.
On Friday, Feb. 22, at Jamestown High School, the Dickinson High gymnastics team enters this year's state tournament as the No. 1 seed with a season team score average of 149.605.
As part of a legendary Hall of Fame career, Van Ells has been in this position before, often emerging from this particular weekend with a state team title. Even with the magnitude of this event, Van Ells establishes the same goals that he has for his gymnasts during the regular season.
"Every meet has similar objectives, of course, and that's just to do the routines and do them as best as they can to be as successful individually and as a team," Van Ells said. "It is different on the state weekend where every other meet, we're competing both as a team and as individuals. ... The performance should be the same regardless; they want to be a part of a team championship as much as anything, and then on Saturday, they don't have to worry about that part, they can just go out and do their routines as individuals, but it's not something that we have special preparation (for)."
The Midgets have won 12 state titles in their program's history, second to only Fargo South, who captured 15 championships from 1971 to 1990.
If they are able to add number 13 to their trophy case, they will join the Bruins and Minot High as the only schools to win four consecutive state championships. According to Van Ells, however, that is not on the forefront of his gymnasts' minds.
"I think that each time that you go to the state meet and there's a chance to win, I don't think the number of them plays much of a factor," Van Ells said. "After we're done, if we happen to win, that will be an important thing to discuss and talk about and be proud of, but I don't think the number really comes into these girls' heads. The three (state titles) before, that doesn't have a factor in this particular meet."
Fresh off an Eastern Dakota Conference crown, Grand Forks is ranked second, followed by Bismarck Legacy and Jamestown, who was runner-up to Dickinson at the WDA meet.
"Those three teams are pretty close and if any one of them could pose a threat, I couldn't tell you which one," Van Ells said. "I think Jamestown has been coming on a little bit stronger, I would think that they would have the best shot I suppose, but they are pretty even so it's hard to tell."
With several gymnasts out of action, Dickinson began its season inconsistent by its own standards. The team finished the second half of the 2018-19 campaign in strong fashion, accumulating above scores of 150 in two of its last four meets. If there is one event that can trip up the Midgets, junior Brinklyn Schumacher believes its the balance beam.
"I feel like the beam is one of our main struggles," Schumacher said. "Sometimes we really hit it, and sometimes we just don't do very good on it - it just really depends."
A week ago, the beam was nearly catastrophic for senior Dacia Rambousek. At the WDA meet, Rambousek was the final Midget to perform on the balance beam. On her dismount, the senior fell to the mat, twisting her left ankle. After being tended to by the medical staff on hand, she gingerly walked out of the Minot Gymagic Center with ice wrapped around the ankle.
"It's a little sore, a little swollen, a little bit of bruising, but I have been practicing all week on it, so we'll just tape it up real good and I'll be perfectly fine to compete," Rambousek said. "I just really hoped nothing was serious so that I could perform at my last state meet."
If healthy, Rambousek will be a threat on Saturday in the event that nearly put her out of commission. She has the state's highest individual average on the beam with a mark of 9.783, and in the first meet of the season on Nov. 30, Rambousek collected a state-high score of 9.85.
Fellow senior Meghan Ackerman has the top average this season on the uneven bars, Schumacher ranks first on the vault and fellow junior Ayanna Fossum is first on the floor exercise. Other than the floor, where the Midgets hold the top two season averages, the ladies in orange and black occupy the top three spots in every event.
Fossum, the top-ranked gymnast in the all-around, is looking for her first state all-around crown after finishing second in 2017 and third in 2018.
Rambousek is ranked second in the all-around. Knowing that an injury nearly wiped out her last chance to perform in high school competition, the senior is using the mishap as motivation.
"That really pushes me to be even better, because it was almost taken away from me," Rambousek said. "I want to show everyone that this ankle injury isn't going to stop me from performing my best at state."