Armstrong helps progress of Hornets' young lineup

 Sam Armstrong is glad she decided to resume gymnastics at Hinsdale South as a freshman.
“I’ve known I wanted to do (high school) gymnastics since the end of eighth grade,” Armstrong said. “I did it when I was really, really little here and I just wanted to occupy myself during the school year and I’m athletic so I decided to choose gymnastics.”  
Now a junior, Armstrong is a team captain and one of the few veterans for a team relying on several freshmen. She’s also having one of her best seasons.
On Dec. 20, the Hornets enjoyed more success as they edged Willowbrook 118.60 to 117.20 in their West Suburban Conference Gold Division dual in Darien.
Armstrong was part of a lineup led by freshmen all-arounders Taylor Daley, Jessica Hawken and Maria Manolis and a new coaching staff with first-year head coach Jennifer Fichter, assistant coaches Mia Tritch and Jody Raymond and volunteer assistants Scott Vicino and Erica Wolf.
“It was really exciting because last year we didn’t have too good of a season and we barely beat some teams. This year is really great because everyone’s working together and we’re really showing our stuff,” Armstrong said.
“Everyone at practice works 10 times harder than last year and we really want to win. That’s the main difference from last year and we’ve made our routines clean so that’s really helped.”
A noon starting time on a weekday during winter break didn’t seem to faze the Hornets. They won their second Gold dual of the season and their second dual in a week’s time after also winnning at Riverside-Brookfield Dec. 14.
“We were a little tired when we came in, but once we got competing, we totally forgot about it. We were just in the zone of competing,” Manolis said.
“It was very exciting. We were all very happy that we won and especially because it was a conference meet. We’re always watching scores to see what we would need to beat them. It was good. It was fun. It was very competitive.”
The Hornets pulled out the victory by outscoring the Warriors 31.40 to 30.10 on floor after both teams scored 27.80 at balance beam. At the halfway point after vault and uneven bars, the Hornets only led 59.35 to 59.25, but Fichter told her gymnasts that they were 0.1 behind.
“I think they were definitely pumped up beyond belief,” Fichter said. “They really seem to pay attention. I have a really nice group of girls and they care. They were watching scores and it was nice.”
While Willowbrook junior Liz Nocek won all-around (32.60), balance beam (8.0) and floor exercise (8.65), Hawken won vault (8.55) and the uneven parallel bars (7.9) and was second on floor (8.2) and all-around (32.55) and Manolis was second on uneven bars (7.7), beam (7.9) and third on vault (8.45), floor (8.15) and all-around (32.00). Hawken and Daley tied for third on beam (7.7), Daley and Nocek tied for third on uneven bars (7.15) and Daley was fourth on vault (8.25) and fifth on floor (7.,55).
“Floor and beam were very good for our team. Those are two of our strongest (events),” Manolis said. “Beam was probably my best event (in the dual) because I stuck my whole routine, I connected everything and I got a very high score.”
Manolis, who most recently competed in club for Action Gymnastics, has experience with Hinsdale South's practice gym because that’s where the club has worked out the past couple of years. Raymond and Wolf are coaches with Action.
“I knew some of the girls because I would see the girls from (Hinsdale South) so when I came in, I kind of knew some faces,” Manolis said. “We’re all a very close team. We’re all like a family. Everyone gets along with everyone very well.”
Armstrong is trying to help create that kind of atmosphere with Rhiannon Turner, the only senior in the program who has been one of the top junior varsity I competitors this season.
Just Armstron's vast improvement makes her a great role model. She has been on the JV I team her first two seasons and she also competes for the school’s girls water polo team and was a swimmer her first two years.
“Honestly, I didn’t think I could make varsity, but I did. I’ve showed off what I had,” Armstrong said.
“A lot of the girls lose hope seeing the really good, experienced gymnasts. (As a captain) I just have to show them you could really get better if you really work at it.”
Fichter hopes to instill that kind of work ethic in her efforts to build the program. A former gymnast at Downers Grove North, Fichter then made the University of Illinois team as walk on as a freshman to team captain by her senior year. Now a counselor at Hinsdale South, Fichter most recently was an assistant coach at perennial power Fremd after being the head coach for Homewood-Flossmoor.
“We’re starting fresh, but it’s exciting,” Fichter said. “They were jumping up and down (after the Willowbrook dual) because they were so excited they won. They were singing on the bus on the way home from Riverside-Brookfield and it’s a good reminder that they’re high school girls enjoying it and enjoying the sport. It reminds me they’re just having fun.”