MUNCIE – Ball State’s Worthen Arena has a capacity of 11,500.
For Saturday’s state gymnastics finals, all but a few dozen of those seats were vacant as the Indiana High School Athletic Association event adhered to Governor Eric Holcomb’s mandate that no more than 250 people could be gathered in one place, and those were occupied by gymnasts.
“It was different,” said Valparaiso coach Lorie Cook, whose Vikings finished second. “We were fortunate to be here and healthy enough to do it. However it was, it was going to be great. We’re thrilled they had the meet because everything else was canceled. That was a real possibility that it would happen. It would’ve been difficult to delay this meet three, four weeks. Indefinitely, you just don’t know. We couldn’t train because school’s closed. This was a great experience. The IHSAA did the best they could with it.”
So did the gymnasts, who cheered as loud as possible to provide sounds of encouragement in an otherwise silent building.
“It turned out pretty awesome,” Merrillville coach Diane Roberts said. “We actually made a pact as coaches that we would create the noise necessary to make the kids feel good. We had it planned ahead of time. We knew the music had to keep playing.”
No spectators were allowed to attend since the number of gymnasts, coaches, meet workers, judges and media alone reached the legal threshold.
“I feel bad for the parents who can’t see their kids in state championship events, but you have to do what you have to do,” IHSAA Commissioner Bobby Cox said. “I’m really pleased we had a chance to let these kids have their state championship.”
Short of having family and some friends to watch, it was actually a best-case scenario for South Central’s Makenna King. She enjoyed the more intimate setting, something her coach, Christine Garcia, equated to a club meet, where spectators are few and the cheering is subdued.
“Everyone was so supportive, everyone just came together as a family. It was nice,” King said. “No one’s screaming, it’s not loud. It was definitely a new experience.”
Cook was particularly appreciative of the opportunity for some closure to her team’s season. Her program has won a state-best 12 titles dating back to 1981, but bowed out in the sectional in 2019.
“Needless to say, this is the ultimate for us,” she said. “We looked forward to it, especially after the disappointment of last year, the unexpected ending for us. This was cool and exciting. I think everybody rallied around each other, especially from our area.”
Valpo was faced with extenuating circumstances since it has 20 gymnasts and only the 16 entered on its post-season roster back before the sectional could attend. The rest stayed back at a nearby hotel with a group of fans and supporters, watching the meet in a conference room on the IHSAA’s live stream.
“Our heart breaks for our kids who couldn’t be here, all the parents who couldn’t be here,” Cook said. “We made the best of the situation. I guess it seemed like an invitational, crowd-wise. To an extent, it was maybe a little less nerves. The only hope was there is some noise for people on beam. I think everybody did their best.”
Roberts said plenty of the girls compared the setting to a laid-back open workout that they are used to attending.
“They just have a lot of fun and cheer for each other,” she said. “I felt there was less pressure because they weren’t performing for an audience, they were performing for the love of the sport and their teammates. I’m never proposing not to let fans come in, but we talked to the kids about it, we’ll create our own excitement, our own camaraderie, and make sure everybody is lifted. A lot of the kids were so saddened by the fact their family wasn’t here, but everybody took care of that, made sure they were feeling better once it started.”
The quiet seemed most noticeable during awards. Richmond’s Elizabeth Ruger had her floor exercise music stopped during her routine after it began skipping, but soldiered on to finish with nothing other than supportive yells and clapping. Unfazed by the moment, Ruger won the event.
“Awards would’ve been a lot more exciting with the fans, but that’s OK,” Roberts said. “I think it was a tremendous life lesson for every athlete and coach who came here. Count your blessings as they come, things don’t always go your way, make the best of it, all those cliches. It was better this way than not at all.”