Sunday, Dec 21, 2014
Sports

Top Contenders piles up state, national titles

BY CHRIS BERNHARDT JR.
Hernando Today

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To say Top Contenders Gymnastic Academy had a good time at the AAU Age Group National Championship would hardly do the Spring Hill-based gym justice.

Competing at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at the Walt Disney World Resort on June 12-16, Top Contenders collected quite a bit of hardware.

Across four levels, Top Contenders finished first 48 times, second 21 and third 19.

This came on the heels of an impressive showing at the AAU Spring State Championships, April 27-28 at the Tampa Convention Center.

"It's the biggest thing in the whole state of Florida. We have the very best scores in the whole state of Florida," said Beth Solinski, who runs Top Contenders. "And then we took our team to the national championships and had the very best scores in every event, in every age group in the whole United States of America.

"Our whole coaching staff has been with me for a long time. We work well together. Everybody follows directions. I think I've got a united group of people that really have the same common goal, and that is to bring the children here at Top Contenders to be the very best that they can be."

???Top Contenders was paced by 6-year-old Alex McCann, who swept through her age group in Level 2.

McCann posted scores of 9.75 in the vault, 9.525 on the bars, 9.8 on the beam and 9.925 on the floor, accumulating an all-around score of 39.

"I listened to my coaches," McCann said, adding that they told her to train hard. "I had to work on my bars, beams, floor and vault."

"She climbs on trees and swings on ropes, and she could probably beat up any boy on the street. She's a tough little girl," Solinski said. "Rough and tough is not always bad. That's good."

Alyssa Hunt, 9, also placed first in every event for her age group in Level 4, though she tied on the beam with a 9.775.

She added a 9.7 in the vault, 9.3 on the bars, 9.9 on the floor and totaled 38.675 all-around.

Elicia Phaneuf was tops all-around for Level 2, Age 8, Group A with a 38.55. She was first in the vault (9.8), on the beam (9.875) and floor (9.725).

For Level 2, Age 8, Group C, Breanna Boice came in first all-around at 38.725, behind a first on the bars (9.625), beam (9.85) and floor (9.8).

A 9-year-old, Kayla Crosby, nearly had a sweep for her group in Level 2, taking first in vault (9.675), beam (9.9), floor (9.875) and all-around (38.95), and second in bars (9.5).

In Level 4, Age 8, Group B, Gabrielle Healis came in first all-around (38.8), as well as first in bars (9.675), beam (9.9) and floor (9.9).

Natalie Torraco added a first all-around in Level 4, Age 8, Group C, with a 38.1. She was best in her group in vault (9.55), bars (9.8) and floor (9.85).

"I felt happy and I was excited that I got high scores on all my events," Torraco said.

"In the whole United States of America, there was only one girl who topped that (floor) score, and that was my other student (Healis)," Solinski said. "She was spectacular. It was absolutely gorgeous. I don't see how they came up with a 9.85. I scored her with a 10. But they weren't giving away tens."

Other all-around winners included Regan Barron (Level 4, Age 7 and Under), with a 37.8. That included firsts in vault (9.575) and floor (9.725).

For Level 5, 11-year-old Mandy Birren captured first in her group, tallying an all-around of 37.025. She also had the highest score in vault (9.3).

"Being focused and not talking," Birren said of what helped her perform.

"A lot of things are going for Mandy," Solinski said. "One, she's a terrific student. She's got a great body for our sport. Her form is just impeccable.

"She home schools. So she is able to put a lot of time into the sport, or just that she's better focused."

Birren's performance was particularly moving because early in the day her mother Kathy had been released from the hospital and was in attendance after a serious health scare.

While visiting her ailing mother, Birren had missed some practice time leading up to the meet.

Kathy Birren said she surprised her daughter when Mandy paid a visit to the hospital the day of the meet, lifting her bed sheet up to reveal she was dressed to leave.

Having witnessed her daughter's victory firsthand, Kathy Birren praised Solinski.

"I really am excited to live where I do, in that we have a coach like Beth," Kathy Birren said. "Beth is an extraordinary teacher.

"Mandy listens to what she says, takes it in and then applies it. That's why I think they mesh well together."

Top Contenders had many other strong showings, including Shelby "Scooter" Goode, who took third all-around in Level 3, Age 8, Group B with a 38.275.

"Watch out," Solinski said. "We haven't seen the best of her. It's coming. She's only been on the team a year and a half. She's just taking off like crazy.

"I'm very, very lucky in this gym that I have a very talented group of athletes that I'm bringing together as a team, and we're going to call them the Sensational Seven. And that's a bold statement cause there were some Olympians called that. And I've been working on them for quite a while, and I think we're going to show this country something in the next years to come. And we owe some of that to Vladimir Chertkov."

Chertkov was an internationally credentialed coach from Russia, who worked with Solinski at Top Contenders in the early '90s and again last year. He recently died of cancer.

???At the state meet in April, Top Contenders earned a team title in Level 2, again led by McCann who garnered All-American honors.

McCann came in first overall in her age group, with a 38.375, including a first in floor (9.65).

A couple of 7-year-olds also were first all-around in Level 2, Lexie Novack (37.35) and Trinity Toro (37.575).

For Level 3, all-around titles were collected by Angelina Cortes (37.525) and Olivia Blumengarten (36.675).

cbernhardt@hernandotoday.com

(352) 544-5228

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