By Matt Kane
COKATO It’s been a decade-and-a-half since a Dassel-Cokato gymnast performed at the state meet. There is a legit chance that drought will come to an end Saturday, Feb. 26, when the state’s best gymnasts meet at the Sports Pavilion on the University of Minnesota campus for the state meet. The hopes of Chargers gymnastics members and fans rest in the petite frame of senior Alex Wente.
“I would love to make it to state,” said Wente.
And most expect her to.
“Alex is a high candidate to go (to state),” DC coach Sara Keskey-Rufer said. “If she hits what she can hit in three events, there are three events she can go in. And, if bars can hold a decent score, there is potential in the all-around.”
In order to make it to state, Wente would have to finish in the top four in one of the four events or in the all-around at this Saturday’s Section 7A championship meet at Big Lake. If Wente survives the section meet, she would become the first Charger to make it to state since 1997 when Kara Hedin performed on the vault.
Wente is aware of the state-meet drought at Dassel-Cokato. So, is there pressure to end that drought? Oh, yeah, there is pressure, but most of it is self-induced.
“There is a lot of pressure. For me, I have high standards for myself,” she said. “Showing what I can do in this sport, there has been a lot of pressure on me.”
The pressure put on Wente by herself and others is a by-product of Wente’s gymnastics history, which is that of a Level-10 gymnast at the club level, where the 17-year-old performed from the age of 8 until last spring. This, her senior year of high school, is the first season Wente competed with the Dassel-Cokato team.
Wente knows her history doesn’t mean a thing when she is performing.
“I get from other people, ‘You should be a guarantee to go to state because you were a club gymnast,’ but it’s really not like that,” she said. “I have to go out there and hit (my stunts) to go. If I fall and have an off day, I’m not going. I feel pressure because a lot of people expect that from me, but you have to push it aside and do what you know how to do.”
What Wente knows how to do is score high. At the regular-season finale last Monday against Glencoe-Silver Lake, she scored a career-best 9.725 on the vault. Not bad considering the vault has been her third-best event, historically.
“It was an adrenaline rush. It’s kind of a best-moment-of-your-life kind of thing, because that’s the highest score I have ever put up in gymnastics,” she said. “Knowing it was on vault and not beam or floor, which are my two favorite events I’ve never had the love for vault I know I can do vault and it’s a lot more exciting.”
As a club gymnast, Wente would have been happy for that high score for personal reasons, but she revealed she also understands that score and all of her others mean a lot to the team, which is a big part of the high-school game.
“To be able to share that with this team and the people I grew into the team with made it that much more exciting because it is a team sport here,” she said.
Wente’s other high scores this season were a 9.5 in floor, a 9.45 in beam and an 8.225 in bars. Her season-best in the all-around was 36.675.
The Chargers team certainly appreciates the points Wente contributes, but they also point out Wente has brought more to the team than just high scores.
“Alex in general has been a huge benefit to the team, points-wise, and she gives the other girls drive to believe that they can step their skills up,” said Keskey-Rufer.
Keskey-Rufer even admitted that she and the other coaches turn to Wente for advice at times.
“We ask her for advice and her opinion because she came from coaches who have way more experience than all of us here put together,” the coach said. “She’s been an asset, not only as a team member but also in helping out the program overall.”
Keskey-Rufer noted Wente doesn’t let her own skills elevate her ego above her teammates.
“(Wente) does give advice to the girls, but she gives that advice the same way another teammate would. She is a very humble person,” the coach said.
Ashlyn Davis, the only other senior competing on the Chargers’ varsity team, said Wente is valuable because she knows what all the gymnasts are talking about when they ask questions.
“She helps a lot,” Davis said of her classmate. “Sure, we have those days when we are thinking, ‘Just don’t help me at all,’ but she actually tells us, ‘If you do this, it will help you gain another skill,’ or, ‘If you do this, it will help with your execution.’ It helps having somebody there who has been in those situations before.”
Wente’s influence was evident from the start of practices.
“We had one girl who was working harder skills over the summer, long before Wente joined the team,” Keskey-Rufer said. “I think when Wente came out and the other girls saw somebody do what she had been working on, she realized she could probably do that. It gave her confidence to go for it.”
That gymnast was freshman Caitlin Latt.
“Seeing her do all of those hard skills makes you say to yourself, ‘I want to do those hard skills, and I should work harder,’” Latt said of Wente’s influence. “She’s a good motivator and she works really hard, and she is somebody I would like to be like when I get older. She’s good and she works hard, and to be really good you have to work hard.”
Latt and Wente are the only two Chargers to do back tucks on the balance beam.
Becoming a Charger
Injuries to her back and shoulders brought forth the realization that Wente would not move any higher in the ranks of club gymnastics, so, because of the want to continue on in the sport, Wente decided to join her high school team. It was a good decision.
“I’m really glad I had this experience of coming out for the high school team. It allowed me to be a part of this school and it allowed me to meet all the girls in a different gymnastics environment than I was used to,” Wente said. “It was a lot of fun, and I’m really glad I did it. I wish I had another season here.”
Wente was happy she joined the Chargers, and so, too, was Keskey-Rufer, who tried to hold back her glee until she knew Wente was officially on the team at the very beginning of the season.
“There were rumors all summer long, even from adults in the community who aren’t even associated with gymnastics,” the coach said. “I heard about it and I was excited, but I told myself, ‘I’m not going to count on it until I get the team line-up from the activities office.’”
Keskey-Rufer was finally able to smile when she saw Wente’s name on the list of committed gymnasts in mid-November, the day before practice.
Although Wente had always gone to school at Dassel-Cokato, she was foreign to the other Chargers when it came to gymnastics, and those veterans in the gym had to adjust to having someone with Wente’s skills now on the team.
“In the beginning, but not so much anymore,” Keskey-Rufer said of her returning girls being in awe of Wente during practices. “It’s now the thinking of ‘That’s what she does. I’ve seen it 50 times.’ It raised the bar in the whole gym.”
Accepting Wente as a teammate was bumpy at times, but is now smooth.
“At first, we accepted her, and then, of course, there was some drama, but, I would say we accepted her pretty well,” Davis explained. “We learned to accept her for who she is.”
Wente loves the time she spends with her new teammates.
“Getting to know them more than just saying ‘Hey’ in the halls or having a class with them, working out with them and spending time with them on the bus, too, you get to know their personalities better and connect with them,” she said. “You become a little family.”
Wente’s humble attitude made the adjustment easier for all parties. Part of that adjustment for Wente included learning what was expected from a high school gymnast.
“We talked to both her and her parents about the dynamics of moving from her previous level to the high school level, because at the high school level education comes first and sports are second. In club, it’s full-time all the time,” Keskey-Rufer said. “There was an adjustment for the girls and for her. Overall, it has been a huge benefit.”
For Wente, the biggest adjustments were getting used to the different expectations from judges, and also the time requirements.
“There is definitely different rules and requirements for routines. I had to get used to that and I am still working on that,” she said. “The practices are completely different and the hours are different. At club, you practice four hours every day, but, here, you go from school to the gym, where you put a couple of hours in and then you go home and hang out. At club you do school, practice, eat, do homework, and go to bed.”
After graduating from Dassel-Cokato in June, Wente will have to adjust to another schedule: the one at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, where she will be a member of the Warhawks gymnastics team.
If Wente can throw a vault anything like the one she did against Glencoe-Silver Lake at this week’s section tournament, she will punch a ticket to state. That, however isn’t a given.
“Obviously, sections is a tougher meet because it’s a hit-or-miss sport,” she said. “If you hit, then you are going to go on. If you fall you won’t. That adds pressure, but I’m going to go in just like I do every other meet just try my best and have fun.”
Wente will be vying for spots against athletes from Becker and Big Lake, the two team favorites to represent Section 7A at state.
The Chargers’ team can add to Saturday’s fun by reaching the school’s meet record of 133.400 points. That’s Dassel-Cokato’s goal.
“My hope for sections is to break the school record of 133.4. We’ve gotten 130.875 at Maple Lake,” Keskey-Rufer said. “Three points is still a huge jump, but, if everybody is on and we have an awesome night, we will come close and maybe break it.”
Joining Wente, Davis and Latt in the attempt to reach that team record will be sophomores Brianna Lindgren and Kate Tormanen, freshmen Kaycia Neal, Kerry Erickson and Molly Pettit.
“It’s going to be challenging, because we have to hit,” Davis said. “The couple of weeks we have to practice now is the time we are trying new skills and when we will really work on cleaning everything up to improve our scores. We just have to go out there and have fun.”