Inspired Indians finish second at Winterfest

STAFFORD –The torn ligaments in Sarah Brown’s left ankle have healed as much as they possibly can without reconstructive surgery.

That’s an option Stafford’s senior gymnast is currently considering, though any decision on the matter will most certainly wait until after the high school gymnastics season.

Over the next three weeks, she will rely heavily on tape and the support of her teammates, who have already helped her survive the most difficult season of her varsity career.

“They are the only reason I am sitting here,” Brown said Saturday afternoon after competing in two events to help Stafford place second overall at the Winterfest Invitational.

“I would not have come back except for the girls. I’ve never seen a group of girls like this. They’re awesome,” Brown said. “With my ankle, my endurance isn’t where it was, my skill level isn’t where it was, my confidence isn’t where it was, but I want to do what I can to help the team.”

The spark Brown provided against an incredibly-talented field at Colonial Forge High School was measurable in the gold trophy the Indians carried home. It was their first of the season.

If Brown has her way, it won’t be their last.

In the final competition prior to Thursday’s Commonwealth District meet, the Indians issued a stunning reminder that they are still a championship-level team. Three weeks ago the team’s roster was down to three active gymnasts because of injuries, but on Saturday they had the look of a squad intent on returning to the Group AAA state meet.

“I hope this meet sends a statement,” Stafford coach Shawn Smith said. “It’s been a long road, but the main thing is I believe in these girls. We’re just trying to make sure they know where they can be.

“They are competitive and I keep telling them they can do it,” Smith added. “They did so well today and they had a lot of fun. I think they’re starting to figure it out.”

As far as Smith is concerned, the timing is perfect. After two months of wondering who was healthy enough to compete, there has been talk lately of five all-arounders competing during the postseason.

Brown plans to be one of them.

“I’ll be doing all-around at districts,” she insisted.

So will sophomore Colleen Schwartz, who is recovering from a stress fracture in her back. Like Brown, she has battled through pain to help Stafford pursue another Northwest Region championship.

On Saturday, in her first full meet since the Park View Invitational on Jan. 5, Schwartz won the floor exercise competition with a score of 9.55 and finished fifth in the all-around — earning a season-best 36.4.

Junior Jennifer Little, who admirably filled the role of star gymnast during Brown’s hiatus, also enjoyed the best meet of her career. In addition to being the spotlight moment of three varsity seasons, Little’s all-around score of 36.95 was second only to meet champion Ashley Wilkerson, of Atlee.

“At this meet, we got some of the highest scores we’ve ever gotten,” Little said. “This was a good meet for everybody. This pretty much showed we can still be on top”

Together, Little and Schwartz combined for more than two-thirds of Stafford’s 109.45 team total. A sparkling floor routine by Tiffany Kerby, who scored a 9.05 in the event, also provided a huge boost. But it was Brown’s presence that had the biggest impact of all.

“Anything she does helps the team,” Little said. “As long as she does her best.”

Participating in only her fourth meet of the year, Brown scored a 9.45 to take third place on the uneven bars. She received an 8.85 for a watered down balance beam routine and did not compete on floor or vault. Two events, however, was enough for the Indians to edge Lee-Davis (108.375) for second place.

Had she been at full strength, Stafford might have even caught meet champion Atlee. The Raiders, led by Wilkerson’s three individual titles and 38.2 all-around score, captured the six-team Blue Division with 111.40 points. It was their third first-place finish since the meet’s inception in 1994.

“I love having [Sarah] compete. I love having her in the gym,” Smith said. “She brings a little fire to the team.”

Nearing the end of what she mostly considers a lost season, Brown’s competitive fire is still burning. So much so that she sometimes tends to underestimate her value and importance to the team.

Because she is unable to perform at the same level that earned her consecutive Northwest Region all-around titles, Brown wages a continuous emotional battle with her past.

The past few months have been anything but easy.

“This is the worst feeling I’ve ever felt as an athlete because I can’t do what I’m used to being able to do,” she said. “It’s so hard, but I’ve got to get over that.”

Being back in the gym Saturday hastened that effort.

After a week of midterms, Brown spent the first few hours of her day taking the SAT exam. Then she hurried to Colonial Forge to meet her teammates. She arrived 90 minutes into the competition, but was allowed to make up the two events she missed.

“This was a crazy day,” she said.

Also, a rewarding one.

“There were some awesome teams here today. To come in behind Atlee, who is awesome this year, is great, but it doesn’t surprise me,” Brown said. “These girls accomplish what they want to. With or without me, they’re going to do it. That’s definitely a motivation for our upcoming meets.”

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