High-pressure performer

MANASSAS — The Winterfest debate over Beth Ploger’s spectacular uneven bars routine had Osbourn Park gymnasts split into two distinct groups Saturday afternoon.

One side clearly believed that a fast food breakfast was responsible for Ploger’s best performance of the season. The other rallied around her grunts.

“Every time she did her giants she grunted really loud. You could hear it in the bleachers,” manager Tony Franco said.

“I make a lot of sound effects, actually,” Ploger explained.

This time, they were necessary. Ploger’s grips were slipping on the high bar and the Yellow Jackets’ freshman had to muster up enough strength to get through her routine.

“Everybody seemed to enjoy that,” she said. “The bars were really slippery probably because I was in the wrong spot where the chalk usually is and I was struggling to get my giants.”

Ploger actually preferred the fast food explanation, suggesting that the pregame meal she ate at McDonalds was at least partially accountable for a career-best 9.375 score.

“We never eat at McDonalds before meets, but we had to be [at school] by 6 o’clock and nobody had had breakfast so we stopped,” she said.

Tragically, the mystery was never solved.

What Ploger did discover, however, is that she’s capable of performing exceptional feats in a pressure-filled environment. During her first foray into the world of invitational competition, Ploger placed fourth on the uneven bars and established a career-high in the all-around with a score of 33.975.

“It was half luck and half the environemt,” Ploger said.

“I didn’t drag my feet on my shootover like I usually do and I was cleaner than usual,” she continued. “I felt it was better, but I wasn’t expecting a 9.3. I haven’t even gotten that high a score in club.”

Two months ago, Ploger’s expectations would have been much different. Back then, she was happy just pulling off a shootover, but a lot has changed since Osbourn Park opened the season on Dec. 5.

“When I first started I was really overwhelmed. Normally, I do really well under pressure, but at first it was too much,” Ploger said. “I wasn’t thinking about having fun. I was only worried about winning.”

With the help of her teammates and the support of best friend, star all-arounder Kelly Stevison, Ploger has learned to do both. It took the 10-year club performer a few meets to adapt to the nuances of high school competition, but once she discovered what skills she needed to excel, Ploger was undeterred in her desire to improve.

“She’s completely in love with gymnastics. She loves learning new skills and loves competing even more,” Stevison said. “She loves to show off what she has.”

The entertainer side of Ploger’s personality was cleary evident at Winterfest.

She earned a 9.05 on her front handspring – full twist vault, debuted a rechoreographed floor routine — adding a pirouette into a back tuck and changing all her jumps — and also introduced a new series of jumps on the balance beam.

“She has so much gymnastics knowledge and a willingness to learn and understand what she needs to do to improve her routines,” Osbourn Park coach Monica Brown said. “I knew she would exceed the expectations put on her.”

Since giving up ballet to pursue a gymnastics career, Ploger has continuously surpassed expectations at the club level. Introduced to the sport by Kindergarten pals who invited her to “Bring a Friend” day, Ploger joined Bounders and quickly became one of the club’s star pupils.

“There were five of us who went together back then but now I’m the only one still in gymnastics,” she said. “I can’t imagine ever leaving this sport.”

Until this season, Ploger’s greatest gymnastics achievement was winning three consecutive Level 7 state championships on the uneven bars. That streak began a year after she received her club’s Most Improved gymnast award.

She’s currently in the running for a similar honor at Osbourn Park. Having advanced to Level 8 and recovered from two ankle spains that briefly stalled her development last year, Ploger is ranked among the area’s top-10 gymnasts on vault and uneven bars.

Her contributions are one reason why the Yellow Jackets are so excited about the postseason.

“We got Beth and our team score went up so much,” Stevison said. “With every meet she’s gained more confidence. She’s defintely made a name for herself. It’s awesome.”

There was a time when the Yellow Jackets weren’t quite certain how to refer to Ploger. Back in December, that was the source of another debate. Unsure whether Beth was short for Elizabeth or Bethany, her teammates finally compromised and came up with, “Elizabethany.”

Ploger’s been stuck with it ever since.

“Our team is so close. We’re like sisters,” she said. “I know I always have them.”

Ploger knows the same thing is true about Stevison, her friend since third grade and the first person who ever challenged her as a gymnast.

“When we were at Bounders, she had a shootover and I wanted to try it. She inspired me to learn it and we’d have contests,” Ploger said. “But now we’ve gone in different directions. I’m more a twister and she’s a flipper.”

Stevison is famous for her flips, particularly her pike Tsukahara vault. Two years older and two club skill levels higher than Ploger, she still continues to provide inspiration.

“Everyone’s like ‘don’t you get jealous of her,’ and of course I do. I look at her and I want to be like her so much. She’s perfect. She gets good grades and she’s such a good gymnast,” Ploger said. “I always tell her she’s my hero.”

Stevison’s influence, however, goes far beyond adoration. It was her encouragement that convinced Ploger, now her teammate at Featherstone Gymnastics Club, to join the Osbourn Park squad.

Together, they form the nucleus of a formidable all-around rotation: one that also features junior Ashley Keller, sophomore Devon Alston and freshman Erin Keating.

“Our team is so strong,” Ploger said.

That strength has its foundation not only in numbers but in unity.

“Everybody screams and yells for each other. We give it our all to help the team,” Ploger said. “In practice, we get so excited when somebody gets a new skill.”

Recently, Stevison had the entire team trying sole circles on the low bar and Keating liked it so much that she used it in her routine at Winterfest.

Though Ploger also enjoys experimenting on the uneven bars, her speciality is choreography, which explains why her floor score has risen from 7.3 to 8.4 in eight weeks.

“On floor I get things pretty quickly because there’s nothing to fall off of,” she said. “On beam, I learn very slowly.”

For the most part, Ploger has progressed rapidly.

She’s been working on a Tsukahara vault and a new combination series on the beam during club practices. Sometime during the postseason, either at the Cedar Run District meet or at regionals, Ploger also hopes to upgrade her uneven bars routine.

“I really want to put in the pirouette,” she said.

Even without a pirouette, Ploger is closing in on her season goal of earning a 35.0 in the all-around.

She’d love to accomplish that feat at the district meet against Stonewall Jackson on Saturday.

“I’m so excited. It’s so different from club,” Ploger said. “I want to make it to states so bad and districts starts it all off. I want it to be my best meet, but also the team’s best meet.”

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