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Beaming with confidence: Pak, Chesterton finish strong to retain conference title

CHESTERTON -- The Duneland Athletic Conference title came down to the final routine in the final rotation Saturday, on the most stressful event to boot.

Pressure? What pressure?

"Being last on beam, it's very nerve-wracking," Chesterton's Mia Pak said. "Having teammates who set you up, it takes the nerves off a lot. I work good under pressure. If anyone is going to be last, it's going to be me."

Pak didn't know she needed a 9.4 on balance beam to secure another title for the Trojans, but she kind of figured what was at stake. That only made the 9.725 she scored all the more impressive.

"I've stayed on beam all year, which has never happened, knock on wood actually," Pak said.

The numbers pushed Chesterton (112.0) past Valparaiso (111.65), which put the heat on with a strong bars series.

"Everyone just stops to watch her," Trojans coach Christy Dzierba said of Pak. "She's amazing. I was watching Valpo on bars and they're good on bars. I was getting a little nervous. We had to hit. I like to know where we are going in, but I didn't know exactly. I knew once our first one went up that it was pretty good. I told them Friday, we've trained you the best we can, you've got to be mentally prepared for it. This group is very calm and laid back. They can do it."

Chloe Larson (fifth, 9.25), Natalie Jones (sixth, 9.125) and Caitlyn Cook (tie-seventh, 9.1) put Pak in position to seal the deal.

"Yes, we did win, but they're going to come back wanting it even more so we have to work harder to pursue that and come out on top again," Pak said.

The typically tight chase for overall DAC honors was even more snug than usual as Chesterton, Valparaiso and Lake Central all had gone 6-1 in duals. It's believed to be the first such scenario since 1977, though Vikings coach Lorie Cook recalled 1991, when three Duneland schools held the top spots in the state rankings, like year. LC and Chesterton shared the top spot with Valpo third.

"It's kind of the same thing," Cook said. "Then only one made it to state. We started push to get more than one out. The next year, we tied with Merrillville at regional and we went 1-2 at state. It's 30-plus years of Duneland Conference dominance, amazing gymnastics in the state. It's the best conference in the state and has been for 30 years."

Cook had no complaints, since the Vikings' score was a season-best.

"Second is great. This is extremely competitive," Cook said. "We have a few things we know we can do better and we usually do. Hats off to Chesterton. It'll be another battle next week."

Gabi Grisafi won floor exercise (9.625) and was all-around runner-up (37.875), adding a second on bars (9.7) and third on vault (9.45). Sabrina Falk was second on floor, Chloe Ochman third on beam and Molly Dreher fifth on bars.

"Not her best, but pretty awesome," Cook said of Grisafi. "We're very proud of her and what she's done. She's improved her skills on every event and is usually consistent."

Coming off the meet's best bars set, Lake Central (109.975) actually led going into its final event, preceding the Trojans on beam, but all four gymnasts fell and three counted in the scoring.

"We've actually had pretty good beams this year," Indians coach Karen Barcelli said. "Obviously, their nerves came out. They knew they were in position to win the meet and they let it get to them. This team actually usually overcomes that. I think they were just all in that really nervous mindset before they even went to the event. That's not a normal thing for them."

Chloe Armanatidis and Maddie Bugg went three-four on bars. Hayleigh Delgado added a fifth on vault and Bugg did the same on floor (tie).

"We still had flaws here and there, but the things we've been working on came together," Barcelli said. "I was pleased with the rest of the meet. I was fairly pleased with beams besides the fall. Everything else looked good. They've realized (they can win) and they're not going to be happy going back into the gym this week with this. Things happen for a reason and this might help us through the post-season. I think once we get out of the sectional, there's still some strong teams we're going to encounter at the regionals. It's not a sure thing."

Grisafi's win on floor interrupted a Pak sweep, where she shared second with Falk (9.575). In addition to winning beam, she took bars (9.825) and vault, tying a personal best (9.9). Her 39.025 all-around total was 0.25 off her best.

"Floor, I can just go out there and have fun," Pak said. "Vault, I didn't expect to get a 9.9. It was a really good vault. I'm really proud of myself for that. I knew I had a good score, but obviously, DAC, they're judging a little harder. Seeing that score boosted my confidence for the rest of the meet. Bars is my best. I knew I would hit that routine no matter what."

Also for Chesterton, Cook was vault runner-up (9.5) and placed on floor (tie, fifth, 9.475) and bars (sixth, 9.325).

"Cook's been out with a hurt ankle, but she came back ready to rock," Dzierba said. "Chloe's stepping up. She has some skills we're working on. The rest of the team, they're all working hard on skills because they all want that fourth spot. It's harder when you have a small team. They have to rise to the occassion."

The championship was Chesterton's fifth straight, but the first for its rookie head coach.

"It feels really good to have my first season go like this. I couldn't be happier," Dzierba said. "We just changed little things here and there, nothing big. I just go by what I ask them, what do you think about this?, by how they work."

The high-scoring meet saw Portage (fourth, 108.175), Crown Point (fifth, 107.4) and Merrillville (sixth, 104.125) all post strong scores.

"You can't count six teams out here," Cook said.

Chesterton won its fifth straight Duneland Athletic Conference gymnastics title Saturday, edging Valparaiso 112.0-111.65. (Photo by Chesterton Athletics)

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