The St. John Vianney gymnastics team accomplished perfection and possessed every trophy possible this year – an undefeated regular season, the Shore Conference Tournament championship, a NJSIAA Central Jersey sectional title, the first NJSIAA state crown in program history and the NJSIAA individual state All-Around winner.
The Lancers had every reason to brag to the world. But through it all, they were defined by modesty. Could it be a by-product of their faith?
“I think it is,” their proud coach Tracie Vaz said. “They pray before every competition, and just in the way they hold themselves, I see a different aura around them. Even when they won the state title, I heard a comment like, ‘Are they gonna be jumping up and down and screaming?’ They didn’t feel right doing that. Once everything got settled down, they got to feel a little excitement, and they handled it well. … They did it with class.”
PHOTO GALLERY: SJV in Individual State Championships
Vaz has coached for three decades and started the SJV program in 2015. She has produced numerous standout gymnasts and quality people over the years, but never had a collective band of sisters like this one.
“It was the most amazing group of girls I’ve ever worked with,” she said. “The support they have for each other is just unbelievable. They all get along and support each other.”
During an 8-0 regular season, SJV produced the state’s five highest team scores. That was just a warm-up for the postseason.
In winning their second SCT title in three years, the Lancers set a conference record with a score of 114.675, while All-Around champ Giovannina Beltra won the All-Around with a record score of 38.625. Christina Fallon was second at 38.2. Both are just sophomores.
SJV nearly equaled that team score in winning the Central Jersey sectional with a score of 114.15, as Beltra again won All-Around. In the state team championships, the Lancers produced their third straight 114-plus effort, amassing 114.125 to beat St. Thomas Aquinas by over three points (individual places were not kept in the meet).
Vaz said at the beginning of the season, if her team didn’t win it all this year, it never would. The Lancers didn’t let her, or themselves, down.
“This was huge for the program because we’ve always been so close,” the coach said. “We knew we could do it but we still had to make sure we kept our guard up and kept our training going the same way. The girls were all excited, everybody felt it; we knew what we could accomplish, we just had to stay focused and stay humble, and just keep meeting our little goals we set going forward.”
Topping it all off was the state individual meet, which was won by Fallon (38.575) after she missed last year’s states due to injury. Beltra finished third (38.125).
“Those two were always very close, so we knew going into individual states it was going to be kind of even between them,” Vaz said. “Giovannina had come out on top every meet. We knew Christine was right there and she was capable of doing it.”
She did it by winning bars and floor, taking third on beam and fourth on vault.
“She takes training very seriously,” Vaz said. “She always comes into practice knowing what she needs to do and she does it. She’s always giving it 100 percent. She knows her limits. She talked about doing some higher-level tricks going into states and then she said ‘I’m in a good place, I feel comfortable, I’m going to go out there and do what I’ve been doing and do the best I can.’ And she did.”
Beltra took second on floor and vault and seventh on bars to conclude an outstanding year.
“She was so extremely consistent this year,” Vaz said. “We knew what we were getting from her every time she went out there. She did what she did, and always with a smile. Just a solid gymnast.”
Also qualifying for All-Around in states were freshmen Kate DeSimone (eighth on beam) and Dayton Stringer (fifth on vault).
“Dayton was in and out of a lot of events through the season,” Vaz said. “But she pulled through and met so many goals she set for herself that was so rewarding for her and us. She had a different goal going into these (post-season) weeks and did amazing. I’m so proud of how far she came and what she did.
“Kate is another strong individual who slowly started improving and we saw her strength growing as the season came on,” she continued. “She surprised us at the end of the season. She was so confident, and I think the aura of the other girls helped her a lot.”
Vaz was quick to note that it was not just her four state qualifiers who contributed, but the entire team chipped in one way or the other. They included seniors Victoria Fitlin, Lindsay Prager, Ashley Salvensen and Asha Samuel; juniors Siya Khokhani and Lillian Murphy; sophomores Reese Albano, Jordan Lackey, Ashley Sennigen, Jaelyn Vaz and Melanie Wavro; and freshmen Mia Giordano and Francesca Pitino.
Vaz was assisted by Kim Cardinoza, her teammate at Freehold Township High School who has been with her through 30 years of friendship.
“She played a huge role in coaching with me,” Vaz said. “It was rewarding that this is something we really did together.”
With every key performer returning next year, SJV should once again challenge for multi-championships. However, in gymnastics, schools often get freshmen who can turn things around quickly, so nothing is a given.
Vaz, however, is happy with their prospects.
“We have a bright future,” she said. “I’m excited, and they’re excited. They’re already talking about their goals for next year. They all had such a wonderful experience and I love that we were able to give that to them. Gymnastics is a tough sport and these girls work so hard in their other clubs where they compete, and this was so refreshing to see them really enjoy this.”