The uplifting news for Prairie Ridge’s girls gymnastics program was followed by a couple disheartening turns on Thursday.
Prairie Ridge, a co-op team and the defending state champion, thought it had four meets set up for the season, with a line on a fifth. The Wolves need six meets to compete in the IHSA postseason series as a team, although given the problems created by the COVID-19 pandemic, the IHSA likely would give the team a waiver if it came up short.
But on Thursday, Carmel and Warren, which had agreed only days ago to compete against Prairie Ridge, both pulled out of their deals. That leaves Prairie Ridge with a meet against Antioch-Lakes and at the Lake Forest Invitational. Prairie Ridge athletic director Mark Gilbert said there is a good chance of adding a meet at Stevenson in January.
“We had a scheduled meet with Prairie Ridge and then realized the date would not work,” Carmel AD Mark Pos said. “I’m working with my coach, but nothing has been decided at this point.”
Warren AD Becky Belmont said the scheduling was “a simple miscommunication.”
Gilbert said he will keep looking for meets.
“Our superintendent, Steve Olson, talked to (IHSA executive director) Craig Anderson and we were able to get a waiver if we were not able to reach the six-meet requirement to still compete in the state series, whatever that looks like,” Gilbert said. “We will try to acquire more meets. We’re going to keep knocking on doors to see what we can get.
“We had a full schedule going into June, we had our six (meets). We were good to go. COVID drastically changed the landscape of athletics. The meets we had were not within our (COVID) region. Our schedule got blown up.”
Early this week, Gilbert, District 155 assistant superintendent Scott Shepard and Prairie Ridge principal Steve Koch sent an email to gymnastics parents about a Zoom meeting Wednesday night. The letter said the co-op, which includes Prairie Ridge, Cary-Grove, Crystal Lake Central and Crystal Lake South competitors, would be dissolved.
That meant Prairie Ridge could not compete in the IHSA state series as a team, but the girls could compete as individuals. Then, Gilbert was able to schedule two more meets, with a possible third.
“At this point, our plan is to move forward with the co-op,” Shepard said, to start Wednesday’s Zoom. “Some meets have been secured to provide our girls with a great opportunity to compete, and then compete at whatever the state series is. A lot has developed within the last 48 hours.”
The Wolves went from having one meet on their schedule to four in those two days. Now they are back to two.
The Illinois Department of Public Health limited scheduling this year to within a school’s COVID region, which complicates the scheduling process. Prairie Ridge’s COVID region is McHenry and Lake counties. Prairie Ridge is the lone team in McHenry County.
Gilbert talked with IHSA assistant executive director Tracie Henry about the idea of virtual meets and started to pursue that, but found no interested teams.
“At the end of October, I was in panic mode,” Gilbert said.
The D-155 administration considered dissolving the co-op, a program that won state team titles in 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2020, and letting the gymnasts compete individually.
The Wolves’ top four gymnasts on last year’s team were two juniors, Gracie Willis and Sydney Hallsten, and two sophomores, Gabby Riley and Paige Magel. Junior Teagan Perrone also played an integral role for last year's state champs.
All compete at the highest level, Level 10, in club gymnastics. Riley is the defending IHSA all-around and balance beam champion; Willis is the defending state champ in floor exercise.
“I’ve been doing this well over 25 years,” said Prairie Ridge coach Lee Battaglia, who also coaches the girls at CLGTC. “This clearly, by far, is our best team we’ve ever had. This is incredible. We have some really, really good kids out there. A lot of teams know that.”
Gilbert and Shepard acknowledged that the high-level talent has become a problem for Prairie Ridge with scheduling. Some teams feel the Wolves are taking advantage of the co-op rules as they draw from a student pool of about 5,800 students.
“The co-op has to be re-upped every two years,” Gilbert said. “We have to get letters from a minimum of seven teams that agree they will compete with us in subsequent years. Each of the three times I’ve had to re-up, I’ve had more trouble getting more support. A few years ago, an AD targeted a by-law that almost passed that was geared toward ending our co-op.”
Gilbert has to re-up again after this year, although he feels the IHSA might be lenient because of the pandemic.
In the fall, the IHSA had no state competitions, finishing all four sports (girls tennis, girls swimming, boys and girls golf and boys and girls cross country) at the sectional level.
Currently, the gymnastics postseason has only regionals scheduled. However, golf and cross country began that way and sectionals were later added, providing hope that might happen with gymnastics as well.
Battaglia said he didn't know the co-op was in trouble until Monday.
“All of a sudden, ‘Hey, we’re not going to have a team,'" he said. "When I heard that, I was like, ‘Whoa, what’s going on?’ Some of the schools reached out to us and we have a few meets now.”
Battaglia credited assistant coach Lisa Rumford and CLGTC owner Lexi Redmond for helping pull things together. Prairie Ridge has only hosted meets at the high school before, which required an enormous amount of work moving equipment from CLGTC and setting it up. Gilbert said they hosted club meets then over the weekend while the equipment was there to help pay for everything.
Redmond agreed to host the Prairie Ridge meet at CLGTC with Antioch-Lakes. CLGTC was going to host the Carmel and Warren meets as well.
Shepard said no guarantee could be made about next year, although the district hopes to again have the co-op.
“We, as a district, have made a commitment in the past,” Shepard said. “We have not looked to cut into those areas. We’ve supported our programs when they have the kids there to do it.”