This season's annual meeting between the girls gymnastics teams from Oak Park and River Forest High School and Lyons Township High School and carried more catchet than usual. After all, the visiting Lions strutted into OPRF last week with a 2013 IHSA state title in tow, courtesy of last year's inspiring 149.625-149.3 win over state runner-up Prairie Ridge in the finals.
With returning stars Kelsy Kurfist, Katie Carling and Michelle Cozza in the fold, LTHS topped the Huskies 148.9-134.5 in a West Suburban Conference Silver Division dual.
The Huskies enjoyed solid efforts from several underclassmen against LTHS. Freshman Alyona Jochaniewicz placed fourth all-around with a team-high 35.0 points, as she scored a 9.0 on both the floor and uneven parallel bars. Sophomore Riley Patnode followed with 33.85 points all-around, while freshman Natalie Weeks and senior Kendall Heininger rounded out the top seven with 33.8 and 31.65 points, respectively, for OPRF.
"Our lineup of Riley, Alyona, and Natalie are a really nice one-two-three punch," OPRF head coach Kris Wright said. "We have some other raw talent coming up, but it's exciting when those three can all hit."
Heininger, one of the Huskies' more experienced gymnasts, likes the upward direction of the team particularly with so many young performers.
"We did very well tonight; a lot of us got higher scores than we normally do," Heininger said. "We've been doing a lot better, especially our freshmen Alyona, Natalie, and Camille [Moore]. They're really good competitors and they're making our team better as a whole."
After the conference meet, OPRF and LTHS will concentrate on the postseason with regionals kicking off on Feb. 7.
With so much promising talent around her, the Huskies' Heininger is focused on setting a successful tone for her teammates while simultaneously capping off her career in style.
"I'm going to keep practicing my routines to make them the best they can be," Heininger said. "I don't want to try and focus on new skills, but I want to perfect the ones I already have."
As for LTHS, Kurfirst took first in the all-around standings with 38.25 points, as the highly regarded junior earned first place in all but one event. After a disappointing 7.8 score in the uneven parallel bars, Cozza responded well to post second-place finishes in three other events. Resiliency is a given with the state champs.
"If something doesn't go our way in one event, we've learned to pick ourselves up on the other events," Kurfirst said. "My night definitely wasn't perfect, but I'm happy with how I performed overall. I know what to work on for the next meet."
Jackie Fuller also scored well for the Lions despite tweaking an ankle during the dismount on the balance beam. Fuller placed third in the uneven parallel bars (9.4) and fourth in the vault (9.35).
"I'm getting more confident in every event," Fuller said. "I feel like my events are finding their way in there to help out the team."
The Lions' meet against OPRF marked their fourth in seven days. Like the Huskies, LTHS turns its attention to the conference meet on Feb. 1 and then the state series.
"We're relieved that we'll be getting some time to wind down and work on what we need to do," Kurfirst said. "It's good that we have that time to get ready for conference and the state series."
The Lions open defense of their state title by hosting a regional.
"We're going to be working hard these next couple of weeks getting ready for conference," said Fuller. "We just have to get in our groove, and we'll be fine."
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