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Last season, the Hudson gymnastics team did something it rarely did in the last few years.
Of course, most other teams probably wouldn't consider what the Lady Explorers did a downer.
After all, Hudson finished 8-3 overall and qualified for a Division I district competition. But the Lady Explorers finished fourth at the Northeast Ohio Conference Valley Division Meet. Hudson, a state powerhouse that captured three straight Valley Division titles prior to last season, had a 2-3 record in the Valley Division. Mentor won the Valley Division title last season.
This season, the Lady Explorers lost only one senior from last season's team. That would be Chloe Skinner, who was a standout on the balance beam.
Everyone else is back, including two state qualifiers.
Senior Logan Custer reached the state meet on the uneven bars, balance beam and floor exercise. Sophomore Mackenzie Miller joined Custer at the state meet on the floor exercise.
"Logan has loads of talent, but more importantly for this relatively young team, she has poise," sixth-year head coach Randi Chepke said. "She brings a quiet confidence and hopefully, her sense of calm during competition will rub off on the rest of the lineup."
"We're looking for her to again lead the way on the balance beam, an apparatus where overall we have plenty of skill, probably more than most teams in our area, but as always, nerves will determine just how successful we can be here. Logan never gets rattled on this event, which is why she usually ends up in first place.
"Mack has matured during the offseason in the sense that she's gained some confidence. She has worked really hard with limited time in the gym and has already firmed up three of her four events. I am certainly expecting she will make a return trip to the state individual championship again this season."
Other key contributors from last season are juniors Riley Skinner, who was the team's leading scorer on the balance beam and the floor exercise, and Jordan Miller, an all-around performer. Custer and Skinner are team captains.
"Riley should again be one of our top competitors on the balance beam," Chepke said. "She's added bonus to her routine and is one of our most consistent tumblers here. She's also working hard to add another set of giants to our bar lineup and will be showing off a new and improved floor routine.
"Jordan comes back with a new determination. She made gymnastics her priority during the offseason this year and we should see the fruits of that come competition time.
"She has become more consistent on the balance beam, has cleaned up the form in her bar routine and is working new skills on floor."
Also expected to contribute are junior Teghan Piper, who was a club gymnast prior to joining Hudson, and freshmen Jenni Spencer and Megan Urbanic.
"The newcomers add a much-needed boost to what was our weakest event last year -- the vault," Chepke said. "Both Teghan and Jenni are flippers and Megan is working hard to make herself competition-worthy by midseason.
"Regardless, she has a huge handspring that will come in handy in the meantime."
Rounding out the squad are sophomores Kelsey Tetmeyer and Jessica Gurreri; and freshmen Katie Goosmann and Paige Parris.
"Overall, the new kids add some dimension to our squad," Chepke said. "Teghan and Megan both have the potential to become all-arounds for us in the future. Jenni is a huge tumbler on floor and literally soars over the vault."
Chepke's varsity assistant is Jeni Barrick, who returns to the team after a brief hiatus.
"I couldn't be more excited having coach Jeni back," Chepke said. "She is a hard-working coach with a wealth of knowledge and motivational tools in her arsenal."
Last season was somewhat of a rebuilding project. It's not a rebuilding project this season.
"The talent is here, but winning the NOC will be a challenge," Chepke said. "Right off the bat, we face three teams that beat us at the NOC league championship and knocked us out of the running to compete at states. Strongsville and North Royalton both have teams heavy with veterans and Medina is reportedly bringing some new high-level talent to their squad.
"We will try and take this one competition at a time, work a bit more on staying conditioned and strong throughout the season and make corrections along the way.
"This team is ever-evolving. As their individual confidence grows, our success as a team will grow. It's healthy and motivating for us to always keep an eye on making it to Columbus, but for now, we're looking only days ahead. Each practice is a new opportunity for success."
The Lady Explorers are scheduled to make their debut at NOC rival Brunswick Dec. 7 at 7 p.m.