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Block, Blackman, Grimaldi, Wischerth are backbone for Oceanside

Oceanside High School gymnastist Jenna Blackman during practice

Oceanside High School gymnastist Jenna Blackman during practice on the beam held at Oceanside High School. (January 6, 2010) Credit: Frank Koester

Jenna Blackman jumped to life on the laptop's screen - the laptop perched precariously but so fittingly on the vaulting horse at the Oceanside High School gym.

Coach Andy Morris, looking every bit the gruff baseball coach that he plays in the spring, watched, eyes trained pensively on the lip-gloss pink Mac Book that his assistant uses to play snippets from the previous matches. The video ended and Morris, the girls gymnastics coach for more than 20 years, broke character. He grinned widely.

Blackman, he explained, is one of them.

"Them" would be the Oceanside girls gymnastics core. Not the stars - not with the likes of Paige McCarthy and Diana Tolaj raking in eights and nines on a weekly basis. But the girls who dragged Oceanside past Bethpage-Plainview in the county championship at the conclusion of the 2007-08 season, using will, gumption, and all those other things coaches salivate over.

There's Casey Block, a junior who's been on the team since freshman year, who is now becoming an all-around gymnast; Briana Grimaldi, known for her long-suffering work ethic; Blackman, who dislikes the balance beam and could do without the leotards, but who pushes herself and excels regardless; and Tara Wischerth, a skilled veteran gymnast who for years has been lost in the shadow of exceptional talent.

"These kids are the backbone of my team," Morris said. "They just keep getting better."

So much better, in fact, that Oceanside looks primed for an upset this season. Oceanside and Plainview (which split from Bethpage beginning in 2008-09) are as intense a rivalry as there is in high school sports. But despite the hiccup two years ago, Plainview has proved its dominance time and again. Before Oceanside took home the top prize at the end of the 2007-08 season, Bethpage-Plainview boasted the title of county champ for nearly a decade. After the split, Plainview again surpassed Oceanside in the final.

This season, Oceanside has shown distinct growth in its third to sixth slots. Grimaldi competed in the all-around for the first time in her career against Sewanhaka. While that alone was an accomplishment for the senior, few expected her final score: 32.85 out of 40, a top-tier overall number for four events. Morris was surprised again during that meet, when Block, competing at exhibition in the floor exercise, pulled an 8.9. Block finished with a 33.8 in the all-around. Both Grimaldi and Block achieved personal bests for total score.

"People were like, 'she got an 8.9. What is she doing in exhibition?' " Morris said. "Now every one of those floor kids knows that Casey is going to knock them out . They're going to step up."

And while girls like Grimaldi and Block continue to hone their skills, Wischerth has had an increasing leadership role on the team - though perhaps one she doesn't admit to readily.

"Oh, you want to talk to me?" she said, both amused and surprised, when asked during practice to talk about the status of the team. "This is the best team we've had in awhile," she said.

Wischerth has been working on a new floor routine. And when Tolaj, a senior gymnast who hasn't been on the team since freshman year, rejoined, there was little problem with chemistry, she said.

Wischerth said her goal was to not carry mistakes over to subsequent events. It's fieriness, though, that has thus proved beneficial to her gymnastics. It's that strong will that causes her to never sit down during practice, Morris said.

The others are equally self-motivated. Blackman, the most bubbly of the four, is working on a full twisting layout on floor. The move, which comprises a roundoff, a back handspring into a back tuck, and finishes with a layout is, in a word, "scary," she said.

Blackman goes to extra practice and sometimes stays late at her club gym to work on skills. It's a prevailing theme: Block, too, is putting extra work into a new move. She's trying to execute an Arabian salto - a difficult somersault made necessary because she's too tall to execute another skill without pain. Then there's Grimaldi, who dreams of tsuk vaults ("it's Asian," Morris chimed in) and scores in the high nines.

It's all ridiculous amounts of work, Wischerth said, especially for some who lack the natural gifts of high-ranked gymnasts. Still, she wouldn't have it any other way.

"I mean, I've been doing gymnastics all my life," she said. "I feel this is where I belong."

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