Local Gymnasts Take National Title

Taylor Cusick displays her athleticism on the balance beam. (Photo courtesy Crystal Van de Zilver)

Team New Jersey struck gold in Florida.

It won the Senior Showcase Invitational at the Estero Community Center in Fort Myers, scoring 151.75 points in the two-day event.

New Jersey went against teams from Massachusetts, Illinois, Washington State, Wisconsin, Texas, Virginia, Indiana, Michigan and Connecticut. The event consisted of 91 individuals.

“I think the caliber of gymnast that New Jersey brought to the event was extraordinary,” Team New Jersey lead coach Cindy Wagner said. “We were so talented and we were very deep. At this meet, you can put up all of your girls. You don’t have to use a designated lineup.”

Team New Jersey consisted of 12 athletes.

“They were all exceptional,” said Wagner, who was assisted by Colleen Sutphen, Meredith Garofalo, Heidi Henning and Elyse Philips. “They wanted to have a good meet and close out their high school careers with a good meet against exceptional competition and they did.”

Jacie Van de Zilver competes on the balance beam. (Photo courtesy Crystal Van de Zilver)

Team New Jersey consisted of former Jackson Memorial High School performers Jacie Van de Zilver and Taylor Cusick, Melissa Astarita (Marlboro), Chelsea Baker (Neptune), Alyssa Christopulos (Somerville), Ally Cucich (Red Bank Catholic), Morgan Durant (Watchung Hills), Shannon Gregory (J.P. Stevens), Nicole Kaplun (Ridgewood), Troi Marshall (Piscataway), Jenna Ramunno (Watchhung) and Alexis Tekin (Watchung).

“All of the girls had a phenomenal competition,” Wagner said. “They hit their routines. There is not as much pressure here as there is at high school and club meets. A lot of our girls also compete at the club level. When you have girls who are as talented as these, there is not a lot of pressure.”

“We won it because there was a lot of encouragement among ourselves,” said Van de Zilver, who captured the all-around championship. “We just worked well as a team. We just enjoyed our time together. None of us are selfish. We do our best as individuals and hope we contribute to the team.”

Wagner said the team excelled on the balance beam.

“It’s interesting that our best event was the balance beam,” she said. “We swept every event and scored our highest points total on the balance beam. I feel our scores were a little underscored, meaning I felt they should have been scored a little higher. The girls wanted to stay on it and they competed at 100 percent. They fought to do all of their tricks on the beam. They were very steady and very confident.”

Wagner said the meet’s vibe lent itself to high quality performances.

“There was a relaxed atmosphere,” she said. “The girls from all over the nation cheered for each other. Our girls hit their routines. They stayed on the beam. They stayed on the bars. They made their vaults. They had beautiful floor routines.”

Team New Jersey accepts its awards. From left to right are assistant coach Heidi Henning, lead coach Cindy Wagner, assistant coaches Elyse Phillips, Meredith Garofalo and Colleen Sutphen and team members Chelsea Baker, Ally Cucich, Taylor Cusick, Alexis Tekin, Shannon Gregory, Melissa Astarita, Jenna Ramunno, Troi Marshall, Alyssa Christopupos, Morgan Durant, Nicole Kaplun and Jacie Van de Zilver. (Photo courtesy Crystal Van de Zilver)

Team New Jersey has won the meet in six of the last 11 years. Wagner has worked with Team New Jersey since 2009. She became its lead coach in 2014. The former East Stroudsburg State College (now East Stroudsburg University) gymnast also guided Team New Jersey to team titles in 2014 and 2015.

“I have always felt we could win the title,” Wagner said. “I felt strongly about this team. What makes the title special is we took girls from all over New Jersey who competed in high school and became friends. Some of the girls competed against each other in high school for four years. They became teammates and forged relationships that can last for a long time. Some of these girls will go to college together.

“They watch other girls from other states compete and create new friends and make new memories. The girls learn so much from each other and feed off each other’s energy. The lead off person can spark the rest of the team to do well.”

Van de Zilver won with a score of 37.825. She was second on vault. She was a co-champion on bars. She was 10th on the beam and fifth on the floor. Finishing second all-around was Cucich. Astarita was third all-around. Durant was fourth all-around. Baker and Cusick were fifth and eighth all-around, respectively.

Cusick was third on vault, 11th on bars and second on floor. She will compete for Ursinus College.

Van de Zilver said she was at the top of her game on the bars, noting she scored a 9.6 on the first day and a 9.7 on the second day.

“I was the most consistent on the bars,” she said. “I scored the highest in all of my events on the bars.”

“On the first day of competition Jacie performed on the balance beam and she was exceptional,” Wagner said. “She stayed on it and was confident. There were no wobbles and she nailed her dismount. She is very athletic, very focused and very determined. She did a nice handspring layout on the beam. Her dismount was a side somersault directly connected to a full twisting back layout dismount.”

Wagner said she enjoyed coaching Van de Zilver. They met in January when the team began practicing at local clubs.

Team New Jersey poses with its balloons. (Photo courtesy Crystal Van de Zilver)

“She did all that she needed to do in practice,” Wagner said. “She never said, ‘I’m too tired.’ She happened to be on top with the gold in her eyes. She wanted to have a good meet, not just for herself, but for New Jersey. I felt she had a shot at winning the title. I felt we had quite a few girls who could win it.”

Van de Zilver, who has overcome ankle operations in 2014 and 2016, a grade 3 ankle sprain in 2017 and other injuries, said her teammates pumped her full of energy.

“One of the main things that really helped me was the support I received from my teammates,” she said. “I would not be where I am today without them and I thank them a lot for that. I felt really comfortable out there. What probably helped me the most was I told myself to go out there and have fun as it was my last meet. I said, ‘Whatever happens, happens. Hope for the best.’ I felt prepared.”

Van de Zilver will remember her all-around title for a long time.

“It’s definitely one of my best memories,” she said. “To win a national title is one of the most amazing feelings in the world. I would not be there without my teammates, coaches and parents (James and Crystal). To make them happy and proud is one of the best feelings I can ever ask for. I would say the pressure of competing at high school and national meets is about equal. You want to do well, but at the same time you don’t want to worry about not making everything in terms of hitting your routine.”

Van de Zilver’s favorite event is the floor exercise.

“There is a lot of energy that goes into it,” she said. “Everyone cheers. It is in the middle of the gym and everyone is watching. That is what makes it the most energetic and the most fun. Gymnastics takes a lot of time and energy. I put a lot of work into it. I have to miss a ton of things. I learned time management skills. You have to be prepared if gymnastics is what you want to do.”

Van de Zilver will compete in acrobatics and tumbling at Azusa Pacific University in Azusa, about 15 miles east of Los Angeles. She will major in business management and minor in photography and videography.

“I am going to miss the memories I made with my friends,” she said. “I will be learning new skills and trying new things. I am excited for my future and am excited to start a new path in my life.”

A member of Millstone’s Action Gymnastics, the former Jaguars standout began competing in her beloved sport at around the age of three. Her dad competed at Lakewood High School and Temple University.

“I went to a birthday party and ever since I went to it I wanted to go back to gymnastics,” she said. “For some people gymnastics comes easily. Others have natural talent. Others have to work harder in terms of either falling or getting hurt in general. All of that stuff just makes you tougher. I had to work a bit harder to get certain things and hit my routines. A lot of injuries set me back, but in the end, it made me stronger.

“It all worked in my favor at nationals.”

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Chris Christopher covers sports for Micromedia Publications Inc. with knowledge, pride and passion. His beats are the high school, college, professional, youth and recreational scenes. A three-time New Jersey Press Association award winner for sports writing, Christopher was inducted into the Shore Football Coaches Foundation Hall of Fame in 2015 for his work in the media. The Lakewood resident enjoys taking walks in Ocean County Park and on the boardwalks in Ocean and Monmouth counties and rooting for the New York Mets.