By Justin Feil, Packet Media Group
Natalie Onderko has not been able to compete the way she would like to for the Hillsborough High School gymnastics team for almost two years.
It was a dream start for the senior’s return to full strength as she won the all-around individual title to help HHS win the team title at its seventh Raiders Invitational that it hosted Saturday.
“The first meet coming back, winning all-around, I wasn’t expecting any of that,” Onderko said. “It was a big shock. My mom was crying tears of joy. I was so excited and happy. I was flowing with emotions. It was one of the best feelings, like all of my hard work paid off. I can’t wait to go through the finish. I know if I’m capable of this, I’m capable of more.”
Onderko and the Raiders are thrilled with the way the season is beginning. After winning their opening dual meet last week, they scored 110.025 points to top a field that included defending state champion Red Bank Catholic.
“The biggest thing that came out of it for the team and the girls on my team to understand is we are competitive with the top of the state,” said Raiders head coach Beth Murrin. “As I said before the meet to them, I call it a freebie. You set your stage for where you’re starting and what you need to work on. I try to have another team or two that’s good to measure yourself up against so you know what you need to.”
The Raiders had encouraging performances across the board. Onderko won the bars (9.3) and the beam (9.6), finished third on vault (9.225) and fifth on floor (9.1) to win with a score all-around of 37.225. Rachel Pallay was third all-around with a score of 36.625 after winning the floor. Solt finished in a sixth-place tie with a score of 35.025. She was fourth and vault, Stella Pashaian was third on beam, and Grace Dinunzi took third on floor. Their balanced efforts paid off in the team win.
“There were a lot of personal best performances, not best scores, but best performances,” Murrin said. “I said to a couple of the girls coming off floor — Kira, Grace Dinunzi — they did the best performances they’ve done for us.
“Stella, she had her best performance she’d had. And Natalie, she competed in floor and vault and balance beam, where she had her personal best. She won the all around. Kristen Maher, a senior, this was big for her. She hit a big skill that she’s been training on in bars. It was a question whether she was competing up until Friday because she hadn’t done the full routine.”
The Raiders delivered top efforts to overcome the defending state champions. If Hillsborough was nervous against that sort of competition, it didn’t show.
“We were excited because we like challenges and working toward something,” Onderko said. “We want to prove ourselves. We have a lot of good freshmen. All our strengths are on different events. We wanted to put our best foot forward and prove we can go up against the state champs.”
Onderko was thrilled to be able to contribute so much. In the past two years, an ankle injury limited her in sophomore year and recovering from surgery for a torn ACL cut her junior season down to bars and beam.
“It feels so good to be healthy,” Onderko said. “Sophomore year was the last time I competed all around. I didn’t think I could do it. It was hard to come back on floor and vault, considering they weren’t my strongest events to start. The amount of legwork they take, it was challenging. This boosted my confidence and made me realize anything is possible if you put your mind to it. With coach’s help, and all my teammates, they really helped me believe in myself. They helped me win and compete in all these events.”
Onderko is still on her way all the way back. She had knee surgery in April 2014, then another surgery in February 2015.
“It’s sad not being able to fully do what I love,” Onderko said. “I’m finally coming back.”
She has been focusing on all of her events as she adds more and more to her routines. It’s been a long road back, with plenty of physical therapy to herself to this point.
“I’ve had to keep up with bars and beam, but I pretty much have bars and beam to where I want them now,” she said. “At the Raider Invitational, it was my first time doing a layout (on vault). That was a big step. And floor, I haven’t done a floor routine in a long time.
“There’s always stuff to improve,” she added. “Vault, I’m perfecting my layout. Floor, I’d like to upgrade my tumbling passes a bit. I didn’t want to press too much. But I have some goals on floor I have yet to achieve.”
The Raider Invitational was the perfect place to get back into the full swing of things. She was able to give the home fans a thrill in a meet that helps the younger HHS gymnasts learn how a championship meet runs in high school.
“It has the same kind of atmosphere,” Onderko said. “It’s challenging, everyone is loud and cheering, and you have to focus. Everyone is cheering on everyone. It’s really good practice. It’s at our home gym so we feel confident on our own equipment.”
It worked to provide Onderko a perfect spot to celebrate her return to a full slate of competition. As Onderko gets closer to where she wants to be, it only makes the Raiders that much stronger of a team.
“It gives us two quality No. 1s,” Murrin said. “Sarah and Natalie can share that for us. And they complement each other.”
There is plenty of impressive depth behind the two of them. It’s why the Raiders are feeling good about their long-term potential.
“All of our freshmen are amazing,” Onderko said. “We have a really good chance of really doing well at states especially. All of us are good on different events. If we all put our strengths together, we’ll go very far.”
Cindy Liu and Brielle Siedel were two of the freshmen that were able to compete in the Raider Invitational. They helped Hillsborough start their first big meet well, but it won’t be resting on its early accomplishments.
“It was such a good confidence booster,” Onderko said. “We worked so hard this week and everything came together. It’s one meet, and it was really good, but we’re still going to keep the same mindset and try our best no matter what. Even though if the competition is hard, we’re still going to work the same and try the same and try to improve for ourselves. It’s not so much about winning, it’s about ourselves gaining that confidence that we need.”
The Raiders will be looking to maintain their new confidence as they prepare for a heavy dose of conference meets. The Somerset County Championships are Oct. 8.
By Justin Feil, Packet Media Group