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Northfield Gymnastics Off to a Hot Start, Eye Third Straight State Title

The Raiders gymnastics team is gunning for a third straight state title.

You often don't hear an undefeated season described as "a little disappointing."

But that's exactly how Melissa and Paul Bernhard, head coaches of the Northfield gymnastics squad, characterize the start to their 2011-2012 campaign, which includes five wins with scores above 140.

Both coaches acknowledge the two-time defending State Class AA champion Raiders are off to a good start in the win column, but success breeds high expectations and Northfield’s quest for a three-peat puts evaluating early season performance under a different microscope than most other programs.

Northfield won the state title with a record team score of 150.400 last year, and posted their best score of the season so far this year (144.475) against Red Wing in their last meet on Dec. 20.

“We’re off to a good start,” said Melissa Bernhard, who is in her sixth year as coach of the Raiders. “It’s taken a little while for the girls to gain all of their skills back. When they’re at this level, it’s more difficult to go to the next level. But we’re going to take Christmas break and spend some time pushing the envelope.”

“The beginning part of the season has been a little disappointing because the girls have skills that they’re not throwing yet that they were throwing earlier last year,” said Paul Bernhard, who began coaching the team with his wife last season. “Our motto is ‘take the leap’ and we want to take the leap and push to achieve the higher-level skills. We really want to go for that next level. Even if we’re at the next level, we still want to go for that next level up.”

Injuries have also played a part in preventing the Raiders from surpassing last year’s pace. Both Bernhards say the team has yet to field its full complement of gymnasts in a meet so far this year.

“One of the biggest challenges are injuries and sickness,” said Melissa Bernhard. “Eight or nine out of our 16 girls have been gone out of practice off and on over the last month. It’s been really hard. We haven’t had one meet yet where we’ve had all of our varsity returners all together on the same line. We’re coming back from injury, people are starting to get healthy again.”

The Raiders have risen to recent prominence with four state tournament appearances in the last five years, placing sixth in 2006-2007 and third in 2008-2009, before ending Roseville’s four-year reign as state champions in 2009-2010. A second state title followed last year and, despite being challenged health-wise so far this season, the Raiders seem destined to make a run in the state tournament again this year.

Northfield returns its full roster from last year’s championship team including senior Meaghan Howell, the defending individual state champion on the uneven parallel bars.

One key to Northfield’s recent success has been depth, and this year is no different.

The Raiders feature a deep roster that has helped keep team scores high even if some individuals have an occasional off night. Even with that depth, individual consistency is a goal Melissa Bernhard is preaching heavily to her team.

“Our goal is to really remain intense across the board,” she said. “When (gymnasts) are at this level, it’s more difficult. It takes more patience, more determination to reach those goals. We’re really trying to focus on competing against ourselves.”

In addition to Howell, who finished first in the  Section 1AA individual all-around last year, freshman Bailey DuPay, who finished second, continues to excel. Senior Sveta Mason and freshman Christy Anderson also provide depth on a roster that includes four seniors and a wealth of talented underclassmen. 

Clearly the bar is set high. But what if the team falls short of its aspirations?

“I will not be disappointed if we throw our stuff and lose," said Paul Bernhard. "But if we do not throw our stuff … if we do the best we can, then I can’t complain. We can’t control what other teams do. There’s no defense in gymnastics.”

No defense—but there is the matter of defending their back-to-back state titles.

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