By Justin Feil, Packet Media Group
Hillsborough High School gymnast Sarah Pallay ended her final Somerset County Tournament the same way she had finished her first one. And her second. And her third.
The Raiders senior was at the top of the podium with her fourth straight individual title, this one all the more special since it was shared with fellow HHS senior Natalie Onderko.
“It’s just as fulfilling every time,” said Pallay after she and Onderko both scored 37.325. “Honestly, that was the best ending that could have possibly happened. It was an incredible way to end my senior year.”
Pallay is the first gymnast in SCT history to win the individual title four times. She shared it as a sophomore and this year after winning it outright as a freshman and junior. “I didn’t know that no one had done that,” Pallay said. “That would have stressed me out even more if that was in the back of my mind.
“I’ve been so lucky,” she added. “I haven’t had any major injuries ever. I’m really lucky that my body’s been dependable. I’ve watched teammates, and I watched competitors get hurt. It’s the nature of the sport. It happens. I’ve had a good run with that.”
Her fourth straight gold was all the better when hers and Onderko’s efforts helped the Raiders to their second straight county crown and their eighth in the last 10 years. This year, they won in dominant fashion with 111.9 points. Runner-up and host Montgomery had 104.425.
“We were very excited with how we did,” said Hillsborough head coach Beth Murrin. “Obviously Sarah and Natalie tying for the title and each winning two events was great. I’m proud and excited for them. I couldn’t be more excited for them how it played out. For Sarah, it was her fourth title. It’s her senior year. We wanted her to finish with that. Natalie, it was her first chance to compete all-around and first chance to compete like that at a championship meet.”
Pallay won the vault with a 9.5 and the floor with a 9.7. She was third on the bars and scored 9.0 on beam. She was thrilled to celebrate a title-filled day with her teammates.
“It’s a really good feeling,” she said. “I just try to do my best honestly for the team and when it turns out that way, it’s really awesome. I’m really happy for Natalie. She had all these injuries and now she gets a little recognition for how good she is. She finally gets to show off how good she is.”
Onderko had battled through injuries in previous years that prevented her from competing in the all-around competition. This year, she won the bars with a 9.525 performance and beam with a 9.325 on her way to her all-around gold.
Just slightly overshadowed by Pallay and Onderko was Kira Solt, who had a spectacular performance of her own. The junior was consistent all-around as she finished second on bars with a 9.175, beam with a 9.1 and floor with a 9.45. She scored 37.07 for third overall in the all-around.
“She had her personal best breaking 37 for the first time,” Murrin said. “That’s a pretty big monument for kids. She had an amazing night, too. She finished third in vault, second on bars, second on beam and second on floor. For her, it was a huge breakthrough night. She always is good, but she was phenomenal that night.”
The exciting thing for the Raiders is how well their entire team performed in the championship setting. Top to bottom, they had gymnasts earning significant points and posting top scores.
“The depth was great,” Murrin said. “On vault, we put all five of our kids in the top seven. Kelly Brady was fifth and Cindy Liu, a freshman, was seventh. On bars, we put all five of our kids in the top nine.
Brielle Seidel was eighth and Kristen Maher was ninth. On beam, we put four kids in the top five. Stella Pashaian was fifth. On floor, put all five kids in the top eight. Kelly Brady was fifth, Grace Dinunzi was seventh and Natalie was eighth.”
Hillsborough could tell it was doing well, but did not know exactly where it stood in the competition. The Raiders kept their focus inward.
“We try not to think about that,” Pallay said of the standings. “We try to go out and focus on our own team and our own performances and how we can do rather than how others are doing. That tends to stress out competitors more if you think about that.”
Pallay showed her experience early. Despite a fall on beam that cost her a better score on her first event, she came back strong to share gold all-around.
“That was the first event,” Pallay recalled. “It was a little rocky in the beginning. I didn’t let it get to me. It wasn’t a very high stress meet for me. I didn’t let it affect the rest of the day.” It’s where her years of championship experience were such a benefit. A mistake early did not throw her off or send her into a downward spiral.
“Definitely having some experience under your belt is important for these big meets,” Pallay said. “We had some freshmen out there and they’re nervous, but everyone did well. Experience is helpful.” Pallay has watched as this year’s Hillsborough team has developed into a juggernaut over the first month and a half of the season. They have gone unbeaten in the regular season and are priming for a state tournament run.
“It’s been incredible because every single girl is so talented,” Pallay said. “Every girl contributes in various ways. Everyone gets along so well. We have really good team chemistry. It’s fun to be a part of. We have high hopes for the future and we’re just working on things day by day and hopefully it’ll pay off.”
Hillsborough had one regular season meet this week and will have two more next week before the Skyland Conference Tournament. Then they will look for their first state title in the final weeks of the season. Pallay sees a similar level of skill on this year’s team, but there is a growing confidence among the team.
“I think we’re in a really good spot right now,” Pallay said. “There’s still room for improvement. I don’t like to make any specific goals but I think we’re in a good place right now.”
Winning a county title in convincing fashion helps. It shows that the Raiders are moving in the right direction.
“We’re halfway through October and that’s when some years complacency can set in,” Murrin said. “This year, every day feels like there’s another kid doing a new skill I didn’t necessarily anticipate. It’s exciting.”
The Raiders have kept a proper perspective going into their meets. They worry about improving individually and as a team, and not how they compare to others.
“Scores vary from meet to meet, our competition varies meet to meet,” Pallay said. “With gymnastics you’re battling yourself and our team is competing against ourselves from our last time. We’re trying to battle to feel like we did better.”
Seeing success in the big meets does help. It shows that they can perform in that atmosphere and do well. “It’s definitely easier stress-wise to go into big meets when you know you have so many people behind you that you can count on,” Pallay said. “It’s pretty similar to past year. Our coach does a good job of preparing us for the meets we have ahead of us. It’s never super stressful going into meets because we know she does a good job.
“You can’t control what our competition is bringing to the table, but I always feel pretty good about what we put out,” she said. “And I think the rest of the team can vouch for that.”
The Raiders try to use their competitions as opportunities to improve. They can build off what they saw at the SCT.
“Sarah fell on beam and Natalie came out of bounds on floor,” Murrin said. “For them, it was a night of learning you can still make mistakes in a championship meet and fight back and perform and do well. And it showed how hard our supporting cast has been working in so many of them getting personal bests.”
The Raiders are seeing strengths throughout their lineup. They have front-line performers who can compete at the top all-around and others who have come on strong in their specialties. It gives Hillsborough hope that they can even score higher by the end of the season.
“Our underclassmen, our supporting cast, is growing,” Murrin said. “Our seniors can still do a little more. The potential is greater if we can all put it together on the same night. And there’s a comfort in knowing the team has your back if you aren’t perfect.”
The Raiders were certainly good enough at the SCT with a team and two individual gold medal all-around performances. They continue to look to improve as they head into the final month of the season.
“I get excited and I get sad,” said Pallay, who may compete at the club level in college. “I get excited because these are the most intense meets of the year. And I’m sad because it is the end of the year and it’s my last year. Just being on a team like we are in high school gymnastics, it’s such a great experience. It’s not like club where it’s all individual. I miss it in the off-season.”
The off-season could be a little more bearable if it comes with the satisfaction of reaching their potential. The county crown was just the latest triumph for Hillsborough and Sarah Pallay in a steady history of success.
“To be able to do that as a freshman and be able to maintain it for four years, it’s amazing,” Murrin said. “To be healthy and showing up at your best for four years, it’s pretty unheard of. She hasn’t always had perfect meets, but she’s always battled back.”
By Justin Feil, Packet Media Group