Little comes away a champ

STAFFORD — Jennifer Little kept saying the words over and over to herself: “Keep your feet up. Keep your feet up.”

That, above all else, was her greatest ambition of the night.

Little knew that if Stafford was going to achieve its goal of scoring 140 points at the Commonwealth District Championship meet on Thursday, she had to swing through her shootover on the uneven bars without dragging her feet on the mat.

It was a small part of her extraordinary routine, but in Little’s mind a very important one.

“That was my biggest goal,” she said.

In what has become a weekly habit for Stafford’s star junior, Little exceeded her goal in a big way.

addition to a flawless shootover that helped her earn a career-high 9.525 score on the uneven bars, Little also won individual titles on balance beam and floor exercise to become the district’s new all-around champion.

“It’s really exciting. Every year, after the season ends, I hope I can do bigger skills the next year,” said Little, who performed a handspring-1/2 half twist vault, used a roundoff-full twist dismount on the beam and added a new gym acro series to her first-place floor routine.

By the time she was though, Stafford had surpassed its scoring expectations and Little wound up with the highest all-around score of any gymnast in the region this winter — a 37.325.

“It was districts. We were prepared for this meet,” Little explained. “We wanted to show everybody what we could do.”

Thursday’s 143.875-point performance was a gratifying accomplishment for an Indians squad that, barely a month ago, wasn’t even sure it would have enough healthy gymnasts to compete at districts. That’s why a team that is accustomed to standing atop the awards podium left the gym awed by its own performance.

“Almost every single person is injured,” junior Tiffany Kerby said. “We started the year a little shaky, but we’ve all been preparing for this night. I’m really amazed.”

Inspired by a pre-meet pep talk from senior Sarah Brown, Stafford cast aside its ice packs and ace bandages and dominated a competition it has now won four consecutive times.

Sophomore Colleen Schwartz, who was told by at least one doctor in December that her gymnastics season was over because of a stress fracture in her lower back, won the district’s vault championship and finished second in the all-around with a season-best score of 36.6. Brown, who competed in the all-around for the first time this season because of torn ligaments in her left ankle, won the uneven bars title and placed fourth overall with a 36.05.

Chanelle Noel earned all-district honors on the floor exercise, while Kerby, who was thrust into the all-around rotation following the graduation of Aimee Little, Jennifer Whited, Allison Rankin and Annie Strickler, scored a career-best 33.9 in the all-around and qualified for regionals with top-8 finishes on vault, balance beam and floor exercise.

“It’s an honor to be a part of this team,” Brown said. “These are great girls. Personally, I knew they could do it. Once they realized it, there was no stopping them.”

There was no team capable of stopping the Indians on Thursday. Runner-up North Stafford, the district’s second regional qualifier, finished more than 20 points behind Stafford with a 123.125, but the Wolverines did have to fend off a serious challenge from Brooke Point to advance to Saturday’s regional competition.

North Stafford’s Nikki Doke finished third in the all-around with a score of 36.1 and the Wolverines edged Brooke Point (122.075) by little more than a point with the help of a regional-qualifying performance from Kristen Kelly on the uneven bars.

Brooke Point’s Becca Howard (35.4) and Brittany Kube (34.725), of Colonial Forge, also qualified for the regional all-around competition by placing among the top-8 in each event, but the night’s top honors belonged exclusively to Stafford gymnasts.

A year after finishing third in the district all-around competition and fourth overall in the region, Little climbed to the top of the award’s podium on Thursday. The region’s reigning floor exercise champion scored a 9.6 in that event — using a 1 1/2 twist on her first tumbling pass, a pirouette into a one-armed back handspring and a new gym acro combination that featured a back-extension roundoff and a back handspring.

“Little always had the potential and the talent,” Brown said. “As soon as she realized it she took off from there.”

Brown’s natural talent was also on display. The two-time regional and district all-around champion won the uneven bars title with a score of 9.675, performed a tuck Tsukahara vault for the first time in nearly a year and improvised brilliantly after forgetting a portion of her floor routine.

“I kind of made it up as I went along,” said Brown, who still managed to score an 8.875 in her first performance of the season.

“I didn’t really have any expectations,” she said. “I didn’t know what it would be like painwise, mentally or emotionally. I have to be satisfied with how I did.”

Schwartz had a similar feeling.

Having battled back pain all season long, she was thrilled just to stick the landing of a tuck Tsukahara vault that she just began practicing again on Monday. Schwartz knew that abandoning a front handspring-front tuck vault just three days prior to districts was a risk, but it was one she was willing to take.

“I’d been working front-fronts since the summer but I wasn’t standing any of them up,” Schwartz said. “I was getting tired of not being able to land a vault. I decided I was going to do a Tsuk because I’d done it before. When I landed, I was so excited because I was on my feet.

“I’m really proud of how we did. It’s pretty awesome,” she said. “Everybody had ice bags and ace bandages all over them, but we had confidence in each other. Even though we were all physically injured, we were mentally all together.”

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