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Giants are small in numbers, big in heart

By CHUCK LANDIS - clandis@chronicle-tribune.com

Jenn Smith watched from afar when Marion High School had one of the best gymnastics programs in the state, and the current Giants coach would like to return to that level of success.

Smith was a Mississinewa student in the late 1980s when Sarah Pack was a state all-around champion and led the Giants to top four finishes in the state meet. The past decade hasn’t been kind to the program with declining numbers and results, but Smith believes the current team can begin a renaissance.

“We’re not where I personally want to be,” said Smith, who embarks on her fourth year as the Giants gymnastics coach. “We’ve had some years where we had some amazing standout athletes like Emily Guarneri and Faune Drake and Emily Murphy ... and would have one standout each year.

“I’m trying to develop a feeder program through Justice and McCulloch to get girls started younger, and we’re going have some camps and clinics next summer. But we’re excited and we’ve got a great team this year.”

Although Marion has just six gymnasts, seniors Seera Walton and Mi’Esha Gibson are solid performers who are back for a fourth year. Cinnamon Johnson returned after sitting out last year and Elesa Leavell is a talented freshman. Their combined efforts should make the Giants more competitive in the invitational and state tournament meets.

“I feel very strongly about the girls I do have,” Smith said. “It’s a small team, but I feel we have a lot heart. Mi’Esha Gibson and Seera Walton are my captains and showing great leadership with the other girls. For them, this year is doing gymnastics but also having a lot of fun.”

Marion finished fourth out of six teams in the North Central Conference meet and 10th in the sectional at Fort Wayne Concordia in 2017. Walton was the top all-around performer at sectional with a 28th place finish and Gibson placed 31st, and neither advanced past the opening round.

Leavell has a competitive background competing for the Mid-America Gymnastics club and could be the latest in a long line of standout performers, according to Smith. The coach also is impressed with Johnson after taking a year off from competitive gymnastics.

“She can do huge things,” Smith said of Leavell, “and she, at this point, doesn’t recognize how good she is and she doesn’t recognize her potential to be a great gymnast. Every practice we try to show her she can do this and she can be amazing and she is amazing but just trying to build her confidence.

“(Johnson’s) come back this year and shown a lot of growth and maturity and her gymnastics is really, really good,” Smith said. “I told her I don’t know how you do that because in this sport you don’t normally take a year off and come back and be better. But somehow she has done that.”

Junior Bella Bradford is another returnee, while junior Tierra Love is a first-year competitor. Bradford and Love have participated in the Wellness Center’s Pizzaz competitive cheerleading program.

Gibson, Walton and Leavell will perform all-around, which incorporates vaulting, uneven bars, balance beam and floor exercise. Bradford is a floor exercise-vault specialist, while Johnson and Love are performing everything except bars.

“My goal is for them all to compete in all-around,” Smith said. “I don’t like to use specialists because you don’t know if someone is going to get injured or something happens. I can have that in my back pocket so I can shift my lineup a little bit so we don’t have any gaping holes.”

Each team is allowed to enter up to five gymnasts in each event and all-around with the top three scores counting for points. Marion has just enough depth to cover each event and score points in team competitions.

Marion debuted Jan. 4 and lost to Jay County 99.275 to 49.7 at Justice Intermediate School. All home meets this season will be at Justice. Leavell placed third all-around with a second in vaulting and Johnson was seventh all-around.

“We’re never ready for that first meet,” Smith said. “You have Christmas break and try to have as many practices as you can over Christmas, but it just feels like it’s never enough ... and you’re never quite prepared for it .

“But it’s important because you have the judges coming in and so you can see the papers they do and see we missed this connection and see our score was taken off here because we didn’t do certain things or we had a mistake or a fall. We can make those changes early on and figure out how we can get our scores up higher.”

Marion had a meet Wednesday at Western cancelled and next competes Jan. 20 in the Northwestern Invitational. The Giants will host a big invitational meet Feb. 3, and the NCC meet is Feb. 17 at Logansport. Sectional competition is set for Feb. 24.