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The University of Wisconsin La Crosse gymnastics team is no stranger to winning NCGA National Championship titles, but that doesn’t mean the team is taking anything for granted heading into 2020’s nationals weekend.
“We are feeling grateful and hungry,” UWL head coach Kasey Crawford said. “The WIAC was incredibly competitive this season, and everyone knew the intensity and difficulty of qualifying to nationals. Qualifying was a huge accomplishment and we are thrilled to be going. We are also very excited because we had a few mistakes at the WIAC Championship, so we know our potential, and we know we have more in us.”
UWL heads to nationals after qualifying in the top three during the WIAC regionals competition with a score of 189.350. The Eagles trailed No. 1 Oshkosh by just 0.325 and No. 2 Whitewater by only 0.075, and when the top three in the region rank within three tenths of each other, it is truly anyone’s title to take come nationals.
La Crosse counted some huge scores during this meet, including a 9.750 from Kacey Mortenson on beam and a 9.700 from Kerrie Legault on bars, which gave both Mortenson and Legault first place on their respective events. The only all-arounder at regionals was Emma Grant, who totaled a 37.050 to take fifth.
The Eagles are 24-time WIAC champions and 17-time national champions, most recently winning back-to-back titles in 2015 and 2016. Since then, the team has come close to taking home the gold, with second-place finishes in 2017 and 2018, and is hoping 2020 is its year to make a comeback.
Unexpected tragedy hit the UWL squad this season, however. Maddie Grobmeier, one of the team’s incoming freshman for 2019-20, passed away from an asthma attack shortly before starting her time at UWL.
Grobmeier was initially a Division I commit headed to the University of Illinois-Chicago, but then UIC dropped its program and she found herself plunged back into the recruiting process. With one visit to UWL, Grobmeier knew she had found the perfect fit. The UWL team felt the same way about her.
“We were so excited for her to join us — her recruit visit just felt like magic,” Crawford said. “She knew we were the right fit for her, and we knew she was the right fit for us. She was also an amazing gymnastics fit. She had an incredible Yurchenko layout full and double layout on floor.”
The team has felt that loss, and Grobmeier’s passing wasn’t easy to overcome. “Initially, it was really tough, especially for the freshman and sophomores, because they had just been at our High Performance Camp where they got to know Maddie,” Crawford continued. “She passed away just a week after our camp, so there was just a lot of shock to it all.”
The team used Grobmeier’s memory to come together and find inspiration and motivation.
“Instead of competing for the team, we were competing for Maddie,” sophomore Mortenson said.
“The passing of Maddie Grobmeier really connected us at an emotional level before we even came back to school in the fall,” sophomore Grant added. “Dedicating this season to her has kept us grounded and reminded us that we get to do this for someone who didn’t get the chance.”
The team wears bracelets that say “Maddog Strong” and have made their season motto “Work 4 More, Work 4 Maddie,” honoring her legacy.
“Ever since it occurred, the team has been so embracing and supportive of Maddie's family,” Crawford said. “Thinking of themes in her honor, t-shirts in her honor, cheers in her honor — you name it. Maddie has become our ‘why’ ... every day we remember that we get to be here, and we get to do gymnastics in her honor.”
So far this season, the team has a high score of 191.975, which it set at the final dual meet of the season. The team is showing every sign of peaking at the right time, having climbed its score a bit higher at nearly every dual meet this year. A team average score of 187.714, one of the highest in the league, shows its consistency and improvement.
Crawford led the Eagles to the national title in 2016 as an interim head coach, and in 2017, UWL hired her on as the program’s official head coach. Previously, Crawford spent eight years as an assistant at UWL and competed for the program from 2004 to 2008, serving as team captain for two years and contributing to three national championships as a student-athlete.
Today, Crawford leads the team with the same fire in her belly that fueled her performance as a gymnast. She wants to win another championship, especially with this team.
“The most exciting thing about this team is their culture,” Crawford said. “They are a coach’s dream. But it’s not by chance — we have worked on creating this culture, and each of the 20 girls on this team is just so incredible. They each work to be the best version of themselves, while doing it for their team. They have a relentless work ethic, and quite frankly, they are just a ton of FUN. But they also know when to get serious, turn it on, and do some amazing gymnastics.”
The team’s bond is clearly one of its biggest strengths, and one it will lean on heading into nationals as it has all season.
“My team is everything to me,” Mortenson said. “They are the biggest supporters. We always have each other’s back and will stick together in every situation. When one of us wins, we all win.”
“Overall, this team just has a chemistry that is unmatched, and unlike last year, we are adaptable and know how to handle adversity,” Grant added.
As the members and coaches of the University of Wisconsin La Crosse gymnastics team head to Ithaca, New York, for the NCGA Championships on March 28, they only have one goal in mind.
“I want us to go out there, leave it all on the competition floor, and end with no regrets,” Grant said. “If we do that, I truly believe that we will be national champions. We’ve had some incredible meets this season, but the amazing thing is that we still have more in the tank. We aren’t finished yet. ... Individual goals aside, my biggest goal and what I care about most is UWL becoming the 2020 national champions.”