Mar. 21—JACKSON — In the strangest Section 3A gymnastics meet in memory, there was one thing Saturday afternoon that didn't change. The Worthington High School team captured first place, qualifying the Trojans for their seventh consecutive state tournament.
This, of course, is the year of COVID-19, and the tournament rules were uniquely applied. The eight teams were divided into two sessions, not one, and at the conclusion of the second session there was no announcement of the winners. There was no official awards ceremony. Gymnasts, coaches and fans were left to wonder which team won and which individuals qualified for state.
For more than 20 minutes after the final event of the second session was over (featuring Worthington, Jackson County Central, Luverne and Windom/Mountain Lake Area), the Worthington girls still didn't know how many of them had qualified for the state individual tourney. Head coach Joni Reitmeier didn't get official word of her team's victory until someone handed her the championship plaque while the Jackson High School gym emptied out.
"Did you win?" a reporter asked.
"I think we did!" exclaimed the smiling coach with plaque in hand. "They gave it to me, anyway, so I'm not giving it back!"
Eventually, the Trojan girls were able to learn that two of them — Hali Bullerman (first, 36.4) and Gracia Elias (third, 35.875) — qualified for state as all-arounders. Also qualifying in events were teammates Abby Bristow (2nd, 9.225 on beam; and 3rd, 9.225 on floor) and Mekyla Nystrom (1st, 9.4 on vault; and 6th, 9.15 on floor).
In qualifying in the all-around, Bullerman placed first on the bars (8.975), second on vault (9.275) and fourth on beam (8.975). Elias was first on beam (9.275) and fourth on vault and floor, both with 9.175 scores.
Redwood Valley's Riley Franklin advanced on floor while teammate Avery Wilson advanced on vault and bars. Windom/Mountain Lake's Brooklyn Paulson qualified on vault, Jackson County Central's Payton Benda made it on beam, Luverne's Ella Reisdorfer advanced on beam, and Pipestone Area's Kindra Douty advanced on bars.
Worthington's team title was no surprise to anyone. At one point during the 2021 regular season the Trojans, who achieved its best-ever fifth place finish in the state tournament last year, were the highest-ranked Class A team in the state.
This year's team score of 143.050 was nearly 10 points better than second-place Martin County Area, with 133.150. Third went to Jackson County Central with 132.6, followed by Redwood Valley 131.250, Luverne 129.550, Windom/Mountain Lake 124.525, Pipestone Area 120.4 and Marshall 117.075.
For Elias, Saturday's result means that she will participate in the state tournament for all six years she's been a varsity member. Though she didn't have official confirmation of her team's seventh straight title when she was approached for a comment, she'd already assumed she was a six-timer.
"It feels great," said the only senior on the Trojans' squad. "I'm really excited for our team. I think all along, we were very strong. We had some oopsies, but we had each other's back."
Bullerman, too, was happy.
"Just to know that your whole team went out there and competed to their best ability."
The third-year varsity performer, now a freshman, added, "I'm really happy with the way we went out there with a bunch of confidence, and we were just like, 'Let's do this.'"
Bristow missed the beginning of the 2019-20 season for ankle surgery, but she bounced back strong this winter season.
"I feel like we had a great meet," she said of Saturday's sectional. "Overall I think we kept our spirits high and we all leaned on each other for support. The team energy is just amazing. It's a very good thing. We help keep our attitudes high and keep us confident."
There's no bigger fan of the Trojans' hard-working, winning and supportive attitudes than Coach Reitmeier, who has been at the helm of the team's program for all seven of the state qualifications.
"We always preach that this is a team sport. And even though you go out by yourself, your team is right there. We've just got amazing leadership. They really have each other's back," she said.
If there was any disappointment about Saturday's meet, Reitmeier said, it might be due to the absence of a post-event ceremony.
"I feel sad in some respects that all the girls who are state qualifiers — not just my girls, but all of them — are not getting recognition in a proper ceremony. And that feels different. I wish I could see them recognized. It just gives me pride to see all those girls, and I know how hard it is to get to that point," she explained, adding, "But as different as it is, we're still grateful to see (the state tournament) happen."
The Class A tournament will be at Champlin Park High School next Friday.