It’s easy to understand why Newport first-year coach Melissa Baker knocks on wood when talking about her gymnasts remaining healthy throughout the regular season.
Because of the format to reach the state tournament for teams from the loaded KingCo 4A conference – a winner-takes-all district meet – it’s important for a team to stay injury-free until the big meet.
It’s especially important when a team has a trio of big stars like Baker’s squad sports. Freshman Candace Ho and juniors Kristine Wong and Malie Fujii have helped the Knights remain undefeated in meets thus far this season – and have the team looking like it could be a legitimate contender to upset conference power (and four-time defending state champion) Woodinville to represent KingCo at the Tacoma Dome.
“We have this triple threat and they are just amazing…but in gymnastics, all it takes is one injury,” Baker said, taking time to knock on a nearby wooden table. “When you have these three stars, it’s great, but it one of them goes down, it’s going to be tough.”
The season, Baker’s first, has been seemingly anything but tough thus far. A Minnesota transplant who moved to the area in August (her husband, a native Washingtonian, opened up a chiropractic practice here), Baker takes over for long-time Newport coach Farrah Griffin, a Knights alum who won six state titles as an individual and another three team titles at the helm.
Griffin stepped down this year due to family demands and a new career pursuit as a personal trainer.
“She was sad to give it up,” Baker said. “She’s helped me so much with the transition – she’s been there for me, and she’s still here for the girls. But she’s also really respectful – like ‘do things your way now’, which is really cool. She’s been perfect.”
Perfect is an apt way to describe Newport’s season thus far. The Knights have defeated all comers this season – 18 teams – and look to be the class of a demanding conference.
Seven of the last eight team titles in 4A belong to KingCo 4A schools, including the last five, marked by four-straight by Woodinville (Bothell won in 2006). Newport won three-straight from 2006-2008 in 3A, but haven’t been able to break through since making the jump up to 4A.
“It’s hard for only one team to move on to state,” said Wong, an individual performer at state last year in the bars. “Our district usually has the best teams.”
It’s a tough pill to swallow for Baker, a gymnast in high school who is also in her fifth year as an official for high school gymnastics.
“It’s a bit disappointing that it all rides on one meet,” she said. “Anybody can have a bad day.”
Fortunately for the Knights, they’ve already beaten most of the top teams they’ll face at the Sea-King District meet once already, including a big win last Thursday over Bothell, Woodinville and Ballard.
The team posted a season-best 173.15 in the win, with Ho and Wong leading the way. Wong won the beam (9.45), placed second in the bars (9.5) and all-around (37.25) and tied for third in the floor. Ho won the floor routine with a 9.85 (“highest score I’ve ever seen at a high school meet,” Baker said), placed second in the beam (9.4), third in the vault (9.3) and fourth in the all-around (36.95).
“We were against strong teams, we were nervous and stuff because they were good,” Ho said. “Everyone had to fight for it, everyone tried their best and we did enough.”
“We’ve tried not to let other teams intimidate us,” Baker said. “I tell the girls not to even watch the other teams, just our own girls. You can get psyched out. That’s been our mentality going into it, because these other teams are tough.”
While the Knights are heavy at the top with their three stars, the team also has depth in senior captains Dayna Ko, Yasmeen Kabbani, Kayle Fisher and Kim Ito. With several underclassman, like freshman Jessica Lee and sophomore Hattie Miller, it didn’t take long for Newport to realize they had a state-capable squad.
“I know at our first meet, we just went into it trying to have fun,” Fujii said. “We found out we had a pretty good chance to win each of our meets then. We just do our best.”
For now, Baker (who makes sure to credit assistant coaches Jessica Khoshnood and Shannon Harris for the teams success) just hopes to keep her team healthy and focused throughout the season – and ready for that slugfest district meet in the back of everyone’s minds.
“We don’t focus on that at all – we don’t even mention it,” Baker said. “The thing I always say is that we might not be the best scoring team, but we can be the team that cheers the loudest and haves the most fun. And everything seems to be working out so far.”
There’s been just one hiccup for Baker so far, however. The hardest thing she’s had to deal with, she said, is the rain.
If that’s the worst thing she’ll have to deal with, the Knights are sitting pretty.