The Kingston High School gymnastics team went from winning a 13th straight Section IX title two years ago to almost not happing at all this season. But thanks to the determination of head coach Rhonda Dixon, who came up through the program herself as a KHS student, the team is back again and looking to earn its place in the upper echelon of high school gymnastics.
But first, the fallow period. After an incredible run that saw the team win 104 straight meets between 2003 and 2015, the Tigers lost their opening contest last year, their second after merging with New Paltz and largely the result of a decline in participation. Then-coach Alyssa Schaller was a sophomore on the team when they began that winning streak, but after the 2015 graduation took the last remaining club-level athletes from the team, there were only six gymnasts left; of those, just half were from Kingston.
As the 2017 season loomed, Dixon said, it looked as though gymnastics was at an end in Kingston after it appeared there wasn’t enough interest to fill out a team that was still combined with New Paltz.
“There were only five girls, three of which were from New Paltz,” said Dixon. “Other girls had graduated and weren’t there anymore. But at that point the high school, nobody really put out that there were tryouts and I don’t think a lot of girls in the schools knew to go out for it because it was a set team for so long and everybody was intimidated. Anytime girls would go down to the nurse’s office to sign up, they were told they were canceling it, that there wasn’t a team. Phone calls came in to me, kids and parents were coming to me. I was told the team was canceled. I went to (interim Director of Health, Physical Education & Athletics Richard Cowles) and said, ‘It’s not being put out there, kids don’t know they can sign up for the team and they’ve been told it’s canceled.’”
Gymnastics in Kingston, even during its heyday, hasn’t always gotten the attention of other sports like football or basketball. A similar fate has been felt by other sports as well, but with Kingston’s home meets taking place off campus at Dixon’s Excel Gymnastics on Route 9W roughly midway between Kingston and Saugerties, it’s sometimes difficult to overcome the “out of sight, out of mind,” maxim.
“This is the only sport in Kingston that has won 13 consecutive (Section IX titles) in a row, and they have to have notoriety,” said Dixon, who coached the team in the early ‘90s and recently returned to help keep it afloat.
A new beginning
Notoriety, at least among athletes, returned this season as word got out that gymnastics was still a sport in the high school, a sport open to anyone in both Kingston and New Paltz between the seventh and 12th grades.
“A lot of kids out there in the middle schools rallied, and I ended up getting 23 girls,” Dixon said. “We didn’t get to start practicing until two weeks after the season started because we didn’t know if we were having a team, not having a team. I got some very athletic soccer players and dancers.”
The future of the Kingston High gymnastics team is bright, though to survive it may have to unmoor itself from its association with New Paltz as extended mergers aren’t looked upon favorably by high school sports leagues. But Dixon said Kingston has a lot of young gymnasts, some of whom will hit seventh grade next year, who are already competing at the club level. This year’s team, which started late and is comprised for the most part of novice gymnasts, did not remind anyone of the program’s prior dominance.
“We didn’t win one meet this year,” Dixon said this week. “We didn’t have the depth, even though I say 23 girls; five of them didn’t get their cards in on time so they couldn’t even participate. But interest was there. The girls have really come a long way. They’re athletic, they’re strong, and we actually ended up getting some gymnasts out of them.”
The Tigers visited a resilient FDR on Thursday, Feb. 2, falling 150.3-134.38 to a team that hasn’t lost a single meet this season. As she’s done all season, Kingston’s Jalynn Harrison had the best overall showing for the Tigers, winning the floor exercise with a 9.0 and taking second in the all-around with 30.65.
“She’s a high school gymnast with experience,” said Dixon of Harrison, adding, “They look up to her and she’s a role model.”
Samantha Kaplan of New Paltz was the only other teammate to finish in the top three in an individual event, placing second in the uneven bars with a 6.6.
The following day, Wallkill came to Excel, beating Kingston/New Paltz 143.55-133.25. Harrison placed first in both the vault (8.45) and balance beam (8.3), but strong performances by a handful of Wallkill gymnasts kept her out of the top three overall.
While a 0-6 record might on the surface seem like the recipe for a season of despair. But Dixon said it was entirely the opposite.
“It wasn’t even about winning,” she said. “It was so much fun this year to see all the girls get together. We’re building right now, working really hard and having a lot of fun doing it.”