by Andrew Garda

After a six-month delay, the Montclair High School gymnastics team has finally hit the mat.

Gymnastics is normally a fall sport, but it’s also a sport that takes place indoors. With COVID-19 still surging in September and concerns about ventilation and spread inside buildings, gymnastics and fellow fall sport girls volleyball were pushed back to March.

MHS head coach Lauren Kruse wasn’t really sure if even that much time would preserve the season for the sport.

“We didn’t actually believe the season was going to happen,” she said. “And so we walked through the doors on March 1st and we were very excited.”

While infection numbers have gone down, COVID-19 is still a concern, so Kruse, her assistant coach, Allie Bowden, and the team are taking precautions very seriously.

“Everyone, of course, brings their masks. We do social distancing,” Kruse said. “The students have to sanitize their hands in between each event, every turn, and we clean all the apparatuses in between each rotation that we do.”

The same process the Mounties use for practice is instituted during meets as well, adding another step to clean equipment between each team’s time on it and with neither team directly interacting with the other.

Montclair has had two meets, the first at home against a tough Wayne Hills squad on Thursday, March 25, that saw the Mounties fall in a tightly contested battle, 100.85 to 97.50, and the second at home on Monday, March 29, against Roxbury, which was an even tighter loss, 99.9 to 98.65.

For Kruse, wins and losses aren’t the critical part. Yes, the team wants to win, but more important is following COVID-19 protocols so the team gets an opportunity to participate at all.

“Allie and I have told the kids that regardless of wins and losses, regardless of how short or long our season will be, our goal for you guys is to be able to socialize,” she said. “To be able to participate in a sport, be able to gather together and be a team because they haven’t had [in-person] schooling and been able to see each other. So that’s been our goal, and I think it’s been really great.”

It’s also great that seniors like captains Amelia Tuchman and Sydney Dunkel, Olivia Trusedale, Philomena Nargiso, Kate Miller, Isabelle Catherine Holt and Gabrielle Dora Diaz will all get one last chance for one last season as Mounties. Since so many seniors lost the opportunity to do that last spring, coaches and administrators have been dedicated to giving this year’s senior class a chance to say goodbye.

“I was really happy that we were able to have this season for the seniors,” Kruse said. “So we were able to honor them and just being able to see all their hard work for the last four years come to an end, but also, too, for the freshmen, they’re able to meet people and not just have a virtual freshman year. So they were able to meet the seniors, the juniors, the sophomores, and just really integrate themselves into school. Even though there was no physical schooling.”

For some of the seniors, the layoff between seasons has been a long one. Tuchman hadn’t been on a mat in over a year before this season kicked off. 

“She stopped doing club gymnastics,” Kruse said. “So this was her first two weeks doing gymnastics again, and she was able to compete in all four events.” 

Most of the team has chosen not to do club gymnastics right now, focusing on the high school team and getting a season in. 

While some teams have seen a drop in roster numbers this winter, gymnastics has actually seen its numbers go up, from 18 last year to 20 this year. 

Part of that is a six-person freshman contingent, but some sophomores and a junior — Ellie Fitzgerald — came back as well. 

“It’s been so inspiring to watch her,” Kruse said. “She was a competitive gymnast about two years ago. She was a regional champion. She’s extremely talented, and she hasn't done gymnastics in two years at all, nothing. In two weeks she has competed in all the events and she’s been really working hard. It’s really inspiring to watch her.”

Montclair has four more meets for the season, against Randolph, Ridgewood, Passaic Valley and Sparta, but win or lose, the Mounties are enjoying what time they get on the mat. 

For Kruse and Bowden, in order for that to happen, they have to make sure everyone is doing what they are supposed to off of it.

“It was our job to just reassure the parents that everything would be within the guidelines, and [tell them] exactly what we were doing to keep the team and everybody safe and have a successful season where we didn’t have to shut down the program,” Kruse said. “And we were going to be able to keep on continuing to do so.”