STAFFORD — Tracy Cloninger found it oddly amusing that it all came down to the balance beam.
Amusing in a scared out of her wits kind of way.
“It was me and the beam,” Cloninger said, marveling at the concept.
If someone had told her two months ago that winning a Northwest Region championship would depend entirely on her ability to conquer the beam, the Gar-Field sophomore would have responded somewhat differently than she did Saturday afternoon.
“I would have laughed in their face,” she said. “[In December] that would have been impossible.”
When it really mattered, however, Cloninger faced the event that is the source of her greatest athletic fears and won.
In a courageous and stirring performance that typifies Gar-Field’s stunning rise to prominence this winter, Cloninger carried the Indians’ hopes and wishes with her onto the 10-centimeter wide apparatus and made them all come true is spectacular fashion. Needing at least a 9.3 on the final event of the day to catapult her team from third place into first, Cloninger gave her teammates a career-best 9.675.
It was a score worthy of squeals, hugs and a championship trophy.
“She had a lot of pressure on her. It was almost too much,” junior teammate Ashley Lienau said. “But she did it. She’s my inspiration.”
Nine weeks after she opened the season by scoring a 7.8 on the balance beam, Cloninger stood all alone with every set of eyes in Stafford’s gymnasium upon her knowing that only she could determine the final outcome of a three-team race for the Northwest Region banner.
“That was an awful feeling,” Cloninger said. “I was shaking so bad. I knew I was the only one going, but I forced myself to block everything out and just do it like I did it in practice.
“If I had thought about everyone watching me I would have fallen.”
The two teams that nearly everyone expected to battle it out for first place — Stafford and Stonewall Jackson — had already performed their final routines. Stafford, the six-time defending champions had accumulated 144.4 points. Stonewall was next with 144.275 — the Raiders’ highest team total of the season.
Gar-Field, which hadn’t come within three points of that mark all season, needed 37 more points from four gymnasts on the balance beam just to have a chance at earning one of the region’s two state meet berths.
The Indians were shooting for second place, but they wound up surprising everyone, including themselves, with a final score of 144.825.
“It’s like a dream come true,” Cloninger said. “It’s such a miracle. We were just hoping to win districts. With regionals, it’s overwhelming.”
A week ago, Gar-Field captured its first district title since 1998 with a meet-record performance. The Indians topped that on Saturday by ending Stafford’s reign and qualifying for the Group AAA state meet for the first time in over 30 years.
“I have ants in my pants,” said Gar-Field coach Ram Roman as the Indians awaited official word of the final results. “This is just like a movie. I can’t believe it.”
The Indians’ championship performance had all the warm and fuzzy feelings of a Frank Capra film. It also had a happy ending — one that seemed unlikely after Gar-Field scored a 128.4 in its opening meet.
“It was just crazy,” senior Tricia Smith said. “Winning this is like, Wow.”
Wow, is exactly how Gar-Field did it.
Smith won a silver medal on floor exercise and a bronze on vault, Lienau finished fifth on floor and beam to advance to state as an individual on those events and junior Megan Sullivan had state-qualifying performances on floor and beam. Cloninger, who had Gar-Field’s top all-around score with a 36.65, finished off the day with a bronze medal on the beam.
“Before she went on beam I told her she had to make up for my fall, but I thought we were going for second place,” Smith said. “She looked me straight in the eyes and said, ‘I’m solid. I have this.’ I just sat down.”
The rest of the Indians were too nervous to sit. They stood by the gymnasium entrance, just a few feet from the beam, silently asking for Cloninger to stay on.
“I was shaking more after my routine than when I was doing it,” Sullivan said. “I nearly broke my fingers from crossing them so hard.”
It was skill rather than wishful thinking that ultimately propelled the Indians past Stonewall and Stafford.
Just before the meet’s final rotation, Roman, who has rechoreographed virtually every routine on floor and beam to increase difficulty and potential point values, gathered his team together for a last-minute rehearsal.
“He made us do three [beam] routines on a line,” Lienau said. “He was really serious, so I knew it was close.”
Stafford and Stonewall were aware of it, too.
“We knew exactly where the pressure was coming from,” said Stafford senior Sarah Brown, who finished fourth in the all-around with a 36.8.
“It was nice to be challenged. It’s sad not to walk out of here as regional champs, but we proved we are good. We can walk out of here with our heads held up high.”
“We knew Gar-Field had a lot of potential and Stonewall, that team is so good,” she said. “They deserve to be going to state.”
The Raiders nearly got the state berth they’ve coveted since opening day. Led by senior Adriana Harvey’s career-best 9.7 routine on the beam and a third-place finish in the all-around (37.35), Stonewall was in first place until the final rotation.
The lead, however, was never more than a half-point. Despite state-qualifying efforts from junior Laura Hancock (floor, bars, and vault) and freshman Carol Reed (vault), the Raiders dropped from first to third in the time that it took five gymnasts to perform on the uneven bars.
Stafford, which finished the competition on vault, passed Stonewall with a combined score of 36.4. Then Gar-Field slipped by with its season-best score of 37.475 on the beam.
“I think everybody’s had a smile on their face since Tricia finished her routine,” Sullivan said. “We’re glowing. We’re so excited.”