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READING — After a winter season filled with interruptions due to the COVID-10 pandemic, Reading High girls gymnastics team veteran coach Zach Stein is hopeful of a return to normalcy.

Following four years of dominance in the Middlesex League, the Lady Rockets failed to win the title last season and finished with a 4-1 mark in a campaign that was dominated by outbreaks.

Stein, who is returning for his 11th season, will be joined alongside by 12th-year assistant Jillian Stira.

“The pandemic definitely had an impact on our season as we only ended up having five meets in total,’’ said Stein. “The start of last season, practically the entire team ended up testing positive with COVID, forcing us to quarantine and ultimately, leaving us with only two or three practices before our first meet.”

Despite not winning the league title last season, the Lady Rockets were just grateful to have competed in one.

“After four years of being undefeated in the Middlesex League, we lost to Burlington at our first meet of last season, but we were happy to just be able to compete at all after the season prior (season was cut short and then the lockdown),’’ said Stein.

As stated under the guidelines for the MIAA winter season, all spectators, coaches and gymnasts must wear masks at all times.

“It’s tough to compete with masks on, but the girls are so used to it now,’’ said Stein. “I’ve been very happy to see the response of how the girls have been so far during the pre-season and I’m very much looking forward to our meets.”

Leading the way for the Lady Rockets will be senior co-captains Caitlin McKenna, who will compete on the beam and floor, followed by Olivia Torello on floor.

Other competitors for the Lady Rockets include seniors Lauren Koulouris and Sydney Cahill, who are slated to compete on vault, while Carolyn Xu is expected to perform on both vault and beam.

Serving as a key asset in the all-around competition will be junior two-time Middlesex League All-Star Sophia Isbell along with fellow junior Avery Abate. Isbell is aiming to develop into one of the top gymnasts in the league.

“Sophia (Isbell) has been our anchor on every event,’’ said Stein. “She has been very consistent in the gym and looking forward to see if she can break some more school and league records this year.”

Abate is new as an all-around and will vie in the vault for the first time this season. Not only has Abate been able to learn a new routine on vault, but has managed to nearly perfect it in the off-season.

“(Abate) is new this season on vault because she has learned a tucked Yurchenko vault that starts at a 9.6 and will help the team tremendously,’’ said Stein. “Abate has really come through for us on vault, and she’s done a great job throughout the season, and I’m very proud of her.”

Other key returning juniors to the squad for the Lady Rockets also include Laura Yatsuhashi, who will compete on vault, beam and floor, while Christina Kapodistrias is slated to perform on bars. Erin McTaggart will compete on vault, as well as bars and beam for the first time.

“Laura (Yatsuhashi) is going to be a solid asset for us in three events, and I’m definitely looking looking forward to seeing how (McTaggart) does in the line-up),” said Stein.

Newcomer Melody Vakili will aim to add some depth on floor as the Lady Rockets aim to reclaim the Middlesex League title.

Other gymnasts that are also expected to make an impact are sophomore Katharine Johnson on bars, along with Ashlyn Spezzaferro on floor and freshman Delaney Johnson, who could compete in the All-Around.

Khalen DePalma is also expected to compete on bars, beam and floor, followed by Kelsey Conant on vault and beam, along with Solana Moldonado on bars.

“Delaney Johnson is a potential All-Around candidate, which will help the team a lot on vault and bars,” said Stein. “Khalen DePalm is another great addition to the line-up on all of these events on bars, beam and floor, as well as Kelsey (Conant) and Solana (Moldonado).”

During the pre-season, there hasn’t been any COVID-related interruptions and preparation for the upcoming meets has been relatively smooth. The Lady Rockets will also compete in eight dual meets with the addition of Wilmington-Bedford as well as the League Meet, sectional and states.

Teams that are expected to compete for the league title include defending champ Burlington along with Wakefield.

The Lady Rockets will open the season on Tuesday, Jan. 4 at Burlington.

“The team has been looking pretty solid so far,’’ said Stein. “We have had no disruptions in our regular practice schedule, so we're happy to be more prepared mentally and physically for this season.

“We are hopeful for a normal season and are very much looking forward to having fans back in attendance,” Stein continued. “The cheering from the fans in the crowd creates an energetic atmosphere for the girls, making the competition way more fun.”

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