St. John Vianney gymnasts set the bar high for new school year

By Rich Fisher | Correspondent

St. John Vianney’s Ari Agrapides takes to the bars during the 2017 Shore Conference Tournament championship. Agrapides and fellow student Alex Panetta, both seniors in the Holmdel school, have been named the first team captains in the program’s brief history. John Blaine photo

The first three years of existence for the St. John Vianney gymnastics program were much like a gymnast itself – ups and downs.

As their fourth season approaches, the Lancers may follow one up with yet another.

The fledgling season of 2015 produced second-place finishes in the state sectional and state championship meets. The bottom dropped out in 2016 as there were not enough girls for a team, and the gymnasts could only compete as individuals. It was back up to new heights last season, as the Holmdel school went 6-1, won the Shore Conference Tournament and Central Jersey Section 1 Tournament titles, and finished second overall in the NJSIAA state meet.

This year, the potential is there to keep climbing as St. John Vianney returns all four of its starters from last year’s powerhouse.

“My expectation this year is that we will go all the way,” exclaimed coach Tracie Vaz, who has been with the program since its inception. “We are stronger than last year. This is the biggest team St. John Vianney has had yet for their gymnastics, and all the girls have strengths in different areas.”

A reason for such optimism is the return of seniors Ari Agrapides and Alex Panetta, who have been named the first team captains in the program’s brief history, and juniors Grace Costello and Caroline Larkin.

Agrapides won the all-around title in last year’s SCT with a score of 38.425, as she took first on beam and vault. She also finished second all-around in the CJ1 meet (38.525) and was third all-around at the NJSIAA Individual State Championships (38.225).

“Ari is a very strong gymnast, and her skill level is very high,” Vaz said. “She has such positive energy all the time.”

Costello finished fifth all-around in last year’s state meet, taking fourth on floor and vault.

“Grace is a perfectionist and works hard at all times,” Vaz noted. “She is one of my most consistent gymnasts. She always has a smile on her face and is such a great asset to the team.”

Panetta gives the Lancers a third solid, returning all-around performer after finishing 12th in the state last year. Larkin is expected to step up after competing in various events as a sophomore.

“Alex is also very strong and is a solid performer on all her events; she is very tough on herself and is always trying her best,” Vaz said. “Caroline works very hard on every event to bring all she can to the team. She will do anything she can to help us succeed.”

Newcomers who Vaz feels will all “contribute immensely,” are Madison Abel, Danielle Fernandez, Grace Hahn and Parul Glupta.

“I am expecting our team to do amazing this year,” Vaz said. “They are all super psyched and are looking forward to another great year, as am I.”

The head coach will be assisted by Kim Cardinoza, her former teammate at Freehold Township in the early 1990s.

“She is an amazing assistant, and I am lucky to have her by my side,” Vaz said. “This will be our second year together coaching SJV. We competed together on our high school team, so it’s nice to bring it back together again.”

The main idea the coaches are trying to convey to their gymnasts is not to let the pressure of winning overcome the joy of competing.

“I always tell the girls that although we are going out there to win, we must stay safe and have fun,” Vaz said. “They are all so naturally competitive, but we are very big on being great role models for good sportsmanship. I let them know to go out at all times and just do their best. I love seeing the team bonding and the smiles it brings to their faces. I am proud of them no matter what.”

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