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‘We worked our hardest for her:’ BHS gymnasts having stellar season while dealing with loss of teammate’s mother

Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer Lumberjacks senior Sara Erickson works on her floor routine before the watchful eyes of her fellow teammates.

BEMIDJI — They not only stuck their landings, but they also stuck together.

From the outside looking in, it seems as if the Bemidji High School gymnasts are having a season of dreams, having set a new high team score one day just to surpass it the very next, just before Section competition is set to begin.

But behind their athletic accomplishments is personal pain.

After setting a high score of 138.925 on Jan. 31, the team gathered that Saturday morning to attend the funeral of a teammate’s mother, Natascha Smrekar, who died Jan. 24 after battling cancer.

Hours after attending the memorial Mass, the Lumberjacks traveled to an invitational in Detroit Lakes, where they set a new team high score of 140.0.

“We didn’t think we’d be able to compete that well, just knowing that we just went to a funeral and we were sad,” said senior Sara Erickson. “But in the end … we all realized that Natascha was with us, in our hearts and everything. We worked our hardest for her.”

Head coach Don Papreck said the girls made the decision to attend the funeral and Detroit Lakes was more than willing to work with the judges to adjust the schedule.

“We thought it was going to be really tough but it was kind of a positive thing for us,” said senior Haley Gregg, discussing how the team grieved together as they competed together. “We just thought about it as she’s here with us.”

The team had been aiming to hit 140 since the beginning of the season.

“I thought we were going to be pretty strong this year,” Gregg said. “We didn’t start out as good as we were hoping to but we started to come together as a team at the end.”

Erickson said the team could feel the change.

“We’ve been working hard at practice … you could just kind of see it happening,” she said. “I can’t say that I actually knew it was coming, but I could feel something good was going to happen.”

The team now takes their high scores — and confidence — into Saturday’s section meet in Moorhead, where they will be competing against tough teams such as St. Cloud Tech and Brainerd. This marks the first time the Lumberjacks are competing in 2A, having been elevated from Class A before the season began.

“I want to see the kids to do well and I want them to have fun,” Papreck said. “They’re pretty motivated by doing well.”

The girls said the vault is their best event, but they’ve also had strong showings recently on the floor, too. The beam could become a key event, Erickson said.

“We have a really good beam if everyone can stick their routines and know that they can (reach) the full potential that they have,” she said.

Papreck noted that the team is constantly working to improve, and that goes beyond the mat, as well, as they have elevated last year’s team grade-point average from a 3.66 to a 3.8 this season.

“They’ve made a lot of improvements during this season and they’re still looking, putting together tougher combinations that they can put into their routines,” Papreck said. “They just seem to focus really well.”