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Ghosts Hit the Mat

Small-School Randolph Pushes Effort

Randolph — Every day at the start of practice, 11th-year Randolph gymnastics coach Felicia Dieffenbach gets reminded why she enjoys leading the Galloping Ghosts.

As the smallest of nine schools involved in Vermont’s one-division league, Randolph has been short on wins for the last decade after capturing five state titles in six years from 1995-2000. There were two divisions during all but one season in that span, with Randolph capturing four D-II championships and the single-division crown in ’98.

With her team of 11 girls — eight of them freshmen — chattering enthusiastically while they set up the balance beams, bars and vaulting equipment to prepare for yesterday’s practice, Dieffenbach emphasized it’s not the banners draped across gymnasium’s walls that keep her committed to the program.

“It’s the spirit of the girls,” said Dieffenbach, who spent 20 years as a USA Gymnastics instructor and now teaches literacy and physical education in the Bethel school system. “At this level, it’s not about winning. It’s about improving your body and developing skills for life.

“When it comes to scores, judges are always going to be subjective. You might get scored one way at one meet and then do the same thing at a different meet and get scored a completely different way from different judges. So we don’t worry about the scoring and just focus on self-improvement.”

The Ghosts have a number of competitive disadvantages, not the least of which is school size. According to state enrollment figures for the 2011-12 school year, Randolph had 453 high school students last year, about one-third the size of Essex High School, which has won the last seven state titles.

The Ghosts added Whitcomb High as a cooperative school this season, but drew just one student in senior Teresa Claughton. Even adding Whitcomb’s 142 high school students from last year into the Ghosts’ pool, the 581 is just nine higher than Harwood for the second-smallest student body in the league.

Access to facilities in the offseason also presents a challenge, with the closest gymnastics centers roughly 30 miles away in Wilder and Barre.

“A lot of the teams we face have athletes who (participate in gymnastics) year round and have professional guidance and an (elementary school) feeder program,” Dieffenbach said. “We don’t have that here. We have girls who come in and have never done a handstand. It’s not a bad thing, but it’s a different setup than places like Essex and South Burlington.”

To compensate, Dieffenbach’s practices are three hours long. It takes 15-20 minutes to set up equipment for gymnastics’ four disciplines (balance beam, bars, floor, vault) and each routine requires constant tweaking in order to progress.

“It’s a big commitment, both in terms of time as well as the demands on your body,” Dieffenbach said. “Every event is its own sport by itself, and each of those sports requires a different set of skills and structure (and) different requirements of the body and mind. It takes a lot of time and energy.”

Claughton, who also plays soccer and runs track and field for the Hornets, began gymnastics as a 5-year-old at Northern Lights in Wilder. After years of practicing with the Ghosts, but competing independently, she’s thrilled to know her scores this year will finally be attributed to Randolph’s team results.

“I wish it could have happened sooner,” she said. “Practicing with the these girls all day, all season... It will definitely be nice to help them score.”

The Ghosts have another experienced gymnast in Rose Earl, who’s been involved in the sport for as long as Claughton and looks forward to a strong senior season.

“I like gymnastics a lot because it’s intense, but there’s not as much of a competitive edge to it like basketball,” said Earl, known for smooth execution and balance. “You don’t maybe feel as much pressure to win and it’s a unique sport. You have to be in good physical shape and put a lot of time into it. Not a lot of people can do it.”

Sophomore Brittney Malik was named a tri-captain and looks forward to this season for the opportunity not only to compete, but to work with the team’s eight freshmen and help them develop.

“I noticed a lot of good things from the eighth graders last year, and now that they’re freshmen, they can definitely help the team,” said Malik, who called the floor her favorite event. “This year, it’s all about working as whole team, the junior high girls included. Working together and having unity.”

Jared Pendak can be reached at jpendak@vnews.com or 603-727-3306.