When Tom Sisulak began coaching the girls gymnastics team at Riverside-Brookfield High School in the 2010-11 season, the program was in disarray.
The Bulldogs had gone through four head coaches in as many years and the team was on the verge of being dropped.
“We were down to eight gymnasts in the entire program,” Sisulak recalled.
But the veteran coach made it his mission to turn things around at his alma mater. The 1965 RBHS grad, who as a senior competed on the school’s first gymnastics team, has been coaching for 46 years in gymnastics, track and cross-country.
Now in the fifth season under Sisulak, the Bulldogs are slowly building a solid base. They recently scored 123.6 points, their highest score in at least five seasons and nearly five points higher than their total at last year’s regional meet.
“That’s what makes it exciting,” Sisulak said. “We’ve got a very young team but they’ve been steadily improving for two months now.
“The team goal is to be 125 by the end of the season and if everyone hits their routines together there is an outside possibility that we could hit 130, which would be outstanding.”
While that is nowhere close to what elite teams such as two-time defending state champion Lyons Township score (the Lions have topped 143 points this winter while the Bulldogs are ranked 50th in Illinois), Sisulak is keeping his gymnasts focused only on improving themselves, no matter what their talent base.
“Any girl that was interested in joining the team, even if they had no experience, was welcome to try out,” Sisulak said. “[This year] 63 kids tried out [29 made the roster], many for the first time. You usually find two or three girls who are natural athletes that can break into the starting lineup, which is incredible.”
Not to mention difficult. Only 65 Illinois schools currently have girls gymnastics teams and 45 field boys teams, primarily because of how hard the sport is to master.
“I call it the king of sports, just for the difficulty,” Sisulak said.
The Bulldogs did enjoy some success in the last decade, with Dana Magyarics becoming the first state medalist in school history when she finished second on vault and fifth on uneven bars at the 2006 state meet.
RBHS won regional titles in 2007 and 2008, scoring 144.3 at the 2007 regional, but the team hasn’t produced a state qualifier since Samantha Brown and Rebecca O’Neal made it on bars in 2009.
Lacey Smith is trying to become the next to go to state. The senior was a sectional qualifier last year in the all-around, vault, floor exercise and bars last year and her scores have gone up this season, her second with the Bulldogs after she ended a 10-year career at the club level.
“This year she’s greatly improved,” Sisulak said. “She’s quite talented on all four events.”
Smith’s season highs are 34.35 in the all-around, 9.1 on floor, 8.6 on vault, 8.7 on bars and 8.65 on beam. An all-around score of 36 is usually good enough to qualify for state
“Lacey does have a real outside shot,” Sisulak said. “It’s going to be difficult. Illinois is traditionally the toughest state in the country for high school gymnastics.”
But Sisulak believes several other Bulldogs have the potential to advance to sectionals, including senior Jackie LaBelle, a four-year specialist on bars, junior Alexia Kingzette, sophomore Olivia Weimer and freshman Katie Polanski.
Polanski (30.35) and Weimer (29.95) have shots to advance in the all-around, while Kingzette’s best chance is as a vaulter. Sophomore Campbell Hayes (28.9 all-around) and freshman Sophia Spirios (28.25 all-around) round out the varsity lineup, while senior Reilly O’Donnell and freshman Amelia Huebner lead the JV squad.
“[Weimer] is a very talented athlete,” Sisulak said. “She’s zooming up the ranks. We’re hoping to get her into the 30s by the end of the year.”
The end is approaching fast. The Bulldogs have three home meets left, including a dual at 6 p.m. tonight against Fenton.
The Bulldogs host the R-B Invitational at 1 p.m. Saturday and the Independent Conference meet at 3 p.m. on January 31. All meets are in the East Gym.