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Alison LaRocca, Olivia O'Connor would like to go out on top for Suffolk gymnastics

Ward Melville's Alison LaRocca competes above the balance

Ward Melville's Alison LaRocca competes above the balance beam during the Suffolk girls gymnastics team championship. (Nov. 8, 2011) Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

Alison LaRocca will take the floor at the state gymnastics tournament Saturday with more familiar faces in attendance than she's used to, and a bigger-than-usual lump in her throat.

She made hours-long treks to compete at states five times, but when she ends her high school gymnastics career, it will be at Smithtown East, decidedly familiar territory for the Ward Melville senior.

"I'll have my parents there, my friends from high school, girls from gymnastics, younger girls, it'll be a big crowd," she said. "It's my last year and probably my last meet ever. Having them all there to support me will be something . . . and having it at home, you almost take it more seriously."

For girls like LaRocca and Bay Shore's Olivia O'Connor, the state meet in Smithtown is a fitting end to long-established varsity careers in a sport where some girls get their start as early as seventh grade.

LaRocca, a senior who's qualified for the meet for six years and attended five of them, will compete on bars and floor. O'Connor, also competing in her fifth year, is in all-around and, with her record-breaking 38.675 in the qualifier last fall, is one of the favorites to medal.

"I think being on our turf, it's more exciting for us," said O'Connor, who is joined by West Islip's Courtney VonBraunsberg and Ward Melville's Cydney Crasa in the all-around. "And for me, my club gym [New Image in Brentwood] is shutting down. So my coaches will be there, and the little girls from the gym and the older girls as well."

O'Connor, who took first on bars in 2010, will fulfill a lifelong goal and compete in college when she attends William & Mary on a partial scholarship in the fall. But despite being Suffolk's best hope for a champion, she said a team title would be much more satisfying. Suffolk has taken third every year since winning it all in 2009 but arguably boasts one of its best team in years, coach Caryl Crasa said.

"We are stronger than last year," she said. "And all their families and friends can come. They're showing off for their schools now, and the whole community can come out to watch. It's a lot of pressure."

Nassau will also send a local contingent -- an 11-girl team headlined by Wantagh senior Brianna Quinn. She's joined on the all-around by three-time state team qualifier Stephanie Jennings, a sophomore from Elmont, as well as first-timer Jessica Lopez, a seventh-grader from Plainview JFK.

The Suffolk gymnastics coaches association -- made up of 22 schools -- has all pitched in with donations, Section XI treasurer Renee Guerrieri said. In addition to providing a venue and equipment, money was needed to feed the gymnasts and provide hospitality to visiting coaches and judges.

And after years of competing on the road, the comfort of closing her high school career at home is invaluable, O'Connor said.

"I've been a gymnast since I was 5 and I know that when you can sleep in your own bed and get a decent amount of rest, it matters," she said. "As for me, I'd love to win top three, but if I don't, that's OK . . . I just want to leave knowing that I led the team to first."

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