Gymnasts ramp up their performances in anticipation of WPIAL state competitions

Sunday, January 14, 2024 | 4:16 PM

Karcy Fennell attended last year’s WPIAL gymnastics championship at Moon High School.

The current Burrell freshman took it all in as an observer, looking to the future when she would be a competitor at the meet.

Fennell and her Bucs teammates are in the mix to make their mark at next month’s team and individual championships, and, she said, there is a lot of work still to be done and qualifying marks to be secured before they can focus on one of the biggest high school meets of the season.

“I am really excited to see what WPIALs is like as a competitor,” said Fennell, whose stronger events are the vault and the floor exercise. “We’re going to give it our all in our section meets and see where we can finish.”

Fennell is one of four gymnasts representing Burrell this year. Juniors Riley Porter and Sydney Lawson and sophomore Kendel Fenner return after competing at WPIALs last year.

The Bucs again are one of 14 schools to sponsor gymnastics as a WPIAL sport, and over the next couple of weeks, they will be working to be a part of the championship.

Burrell competes in section matches against Baldwin, Fox Chapel, North Allegheny, North Hills, Pine-Richland and Thomas Jefferson. The top three teams in each of the two sections advance to the WPIAL finals Feb. 9 at Moon High School.

WPIAL qualifying standards have been established for every high school gymnast to secure. Those who meet or surpass those standards will test themselves once more at the individual championships in the Advanced, Intermediate I or Intermediate II divisions Feb. 10 at Moon.

“We’re all pretty excited for what we could do at WPIALs, but we know we have a lot to do until then,” said Fenner, a USA Gymnastics state champion on beam at the Excel Platinum level in 2021.

“The atmosphere of the sport at the high school level is really fun.”

In addition to the 14 teams in the two WPIAL sections, many other athletes compete as independents at meets hoping to make their mark in one or all four of the events: beam, floor, vault and uneven bars.

Porter, Fenner, and Fennell train at Ultimate Gymnastics in Delmont under longtime coach Renee Ruggeri. Lawson trains at Brandy Marie’s Gymnastics in Sarver and joins her Burrell teammates for meets.

Ultimate Gymnastics also is home to several who are back for more at the high school level or who are just getting their feet wet in a different side of gymnastics from what they are used to in USAG.

Competing independently out of Ultimate are seniors Carlee Valenta (Penn-Trafford) and Ava Levine (Southmoreland); sophomores Isabel Orzeck (Hempfield) and Olivia Kovach (Mt. Pleasant); and freshmen Ava Hickman (Hempfield), Abby Levine (Southmoreland), Mary Sue Milliman (Kiski Area), Isabella Thomas (St. Joseph), Evelina Cupelli (Norwin), and Paige Montgomery (Freeport).

Kovach competed in the Advanced division at WPIALs last year and placed 11th out of 17 in the all-around with a best individual-event finish of seventh on floor.

Ava Levine, a part of high school gymnastics for the first time, is glad to have the opportunity, even if it is for just one year.

“I thought about it before, but I never acted on it,” she said. “This year, I figured, ‘Why not?’ I am glad I did. I am still trying to figure out how the scoring works for high school. I will just try to do my best, and, hopefully, it is good enough to earn a place at WPIALs.”

All of the independents throughout the WPIAL compete for qualifying scores at the various section meets.

“Competing with (the Ultimate independents) through USAG, too, it’s so much fun to see them come to high school gymnastics and do well,” Fenner said. “Hopefully, we can get as many to WPIALs in as many events as possible.”

Burrell will face section foes Pine-Richland, Fox Chapel, and North Allegheny on Friday at Roots Gymnastics in Gibsonia.

The Bucs host Montour at Ultimate on Jan. 29, with the final meet at Monaca Turners on Feb. 1.

Burrell sits at 1-1 in the section with a win over Thomas Jefferson and a loss to Baldwin in a tri-meet shortly before Christmas.

“We competed pretty well that day,” Fennell said.

The Bucs scored the win despite missing two event scores as Lawson performed just the vault and the floor. Porter, Ruggeri said, is battling through leg stress issues that could keep her out of action for an undetermined amount of time.

“Riley is a junior, and she has competed at Ultimate for five or six years,” Ruggeri said. “Karcy has been here for a while, too. Kendel is probably our strongest competitor this year.”

Porter and Fenner represented Burrell in the Intermediate II all-around last year. Porter was ninth, and Fenner was 14th out of the 20 in the field.

Lawson was strong on floor, taking sixth out of 44 in the event.

“It’s always good to have something where the girls can represent their school,” Ruggeri said. “A lot of the girls say that their friends don’t even know they do gymnastics. It’s a way to motivate them to excel and get some notoriety in their school.”

The Burrell gymnasts and many others attended a Stars N Stripes Invitational USAG event this weekend in Erie. It is not a WPIAL-sanctioned event, so no WPIAL marks could be achieved.

“All of the girls are competing for USAG, too, and that is a lot,” Ruggeri said. “Depending on what level they are, you have to alter their routines a little bit for high school. The rules are slightly different.

“All of the girls have events they favor, but you will see some who are well-rounded to where they will be able to qualify in all four and be eligible for the all-around title at WPIALs. There are still some good opportunities to score well and get those (qualifying) marks.”

Michael Love is a TribLive reporter covering sports in the Alle-Kiski Valley and the eastern suburbs of Pittsburgh. A Clearfield native and a graduate of Westminster (Pa.), he joined the Trib in 2002 after spending five years at the Clearfield Progress. He can be reached at

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