Cara DiPenta was on uneven footing. After leaving her club team before the high school gymnastics season began, she was experiencing her longest competitive drought in years. For four months, there were no practices, no meets, no nothing. Just waiting – something the Smithtown gymnast wasn’t used to.
"Four months off is a long time in this sport," DiPenta said.
But that feeling was precisely what she wanted. She wasn’t enjoying club gymnastics anymore and she knew that this fall’s high school season was going to be special.
"I quit club to do varsity," DiPenta said. "Club and varsity were interfering with each other, and I wanted to put my all into varsity this year…The club atmosphere and the varsity atmosphere are completely different. Club was just too stressful for me. I wasn’t enjoying it. But when I come here and I’m with my varsity team, I enjoy every minute."
The winning helps, too. After completing an undefeated regular season, Smithtown won the Suffolk team championship with 171.575 points Tuesday night at West Islip High School. Connetquot was second with 169.7 points and Middle Country was third with 164.8.
DiPenta placed second on bars with an 8.725, completing a routine that she thought was her best this season. After the layoff, it took time to get her strength to a level where she could effortlessly bound from bar to bar. She believes it’s there now.
"Having a couple months off, I definitely lost some strength," DiPenta said. "It’s hard to do bars without any strength….I was rough in the beginning of the season. But today, I hit every handstand, went out there, did my best, and that was my best routine."
Smithtown’s Grace Brandofino tied for first with Connetquot’s Alexandra Melchiona on vault (9.2). Melchiona also won the All-Around (36.65) and on floor (9.4) and beam (9.5). Middle Country’s Madisyn Rodriguez won on bars (8.875).
"She’s an amazing vaulter," Smithtown teammate Samantha Alcure said of Brandofino. "She’s been our stable for vault with her suke. She does amazing every time. She has good height on it, and a good landing."
Alcure was seventh in the all-around with 33.6 points.
Like DiPenta, Kelly Garcia left her club team to focus on bringing a championship to Smithtown.
"Smithtown gymnastics is just such a different energy than out-of-school gymnastics," said Garcia, who tied for 10th on floor with teammate Jane Gullason (8.75). "I really lost my love for out-of-school gymnastics and Smithtown gymnastics has just made me love it even more."
Garcia continued: "It’s just fun [here]. Coming to practice is not stressful. It’s more of an escape."
As a team, Smithtown won on vault (42.975) and bars (41.1) and finished second on beam (42.85) and floor (44.65). Connetquot won on beam (43.55) and floor (45.25).