Gymnastics: Portage’s Karen Barcelli named P-T Coach of the Year
By Dave Melton Post-Tribune correspondent March 30, 2013 11:08PM
Karen Barcelli is photographed at Portage (Ind.) High School Wednesday March 27, 2013. Barcelli is the Post-Tribune Gymnastics Coach of the Year. | Stephanie Dowell~Sun-Times Media
Updated: May 1, 2013 4:06PM
PORTAGE — In the season following the program’s first state finals appearance since 1975, Portage head coach Karen Barcelli had a much different task entering the 2012-13 gymnastics season.
The goal was no longer to simply reach the state finals. It was to improve upon the fourth-place finish. To start, the Indians put together an undefeated regular season, including a defeat of top-ranked Valparaiso in February.
But the postseason was different for Portage, as Valparaiso stormed back to capture the DAC meet, followed by Vikings victories at sectionals and regionals. Still, entering the state finals, Barcelli said she didn’t have to bolster her team’s mood.
“I don’t think I had to keep their spirits up. They knew they were good,” she said. “I felt like my job was just to encourage them; keep them wanting it. They still had the capabilities; they just needed the repetition and the confidence.”
It all clicked for Portage that Saturday in Muncie, as the Indians captured the second state championship in program history, making Barcelli the Post-Tribune’s Coach of the Year for the second straight year.
Barcelli’s coaching style mixed well with the energetic and easygoing Indians squad.
“I can be as intense as the next coach, but I’m pretty laid-back,” said Barcelli. “I can get excited, for sure. But it all fell into place; we fit each other.”
“She always made sure that we enjoyed what we were doing,” said Portage senior Lyndsey Cunningham. “We could really buckle down and do what we needed to do, but we’d still have a good laugh in the gym. She always made it a good atmosphere.”
It was Cunningham, in particular, who benefitted from Barcelli’s leadership, culminating in a moment that Barcelli and several gymnasts called the turning point of the state finals.
Cunningham had spent the entire season working on her newly-installed Tsuk vault, but was never able to stick the routine on her own — in practice or competition.
“It was just me trying the vault over and over again. (Barcelli) encouraged me a lot,” said Cunningham.
With Portage trailing Valparaiso after the first two rotations, the Indians stepped to the vault. Cunningham was the first one up on vault, with one final chance to hit the Tsuk in her career.
As Cunningham flew through the air, Barcelli reached out to spot Cunningham but quickly yanked her hands back, just in time for Cunningham to — for the first time — land the vault on her own.
“It was exciting for both of us,” said Cunningham. “She always emphasized the fact that we were a team and we were there to win as a team. She made sure that everyone was doing their job.”
Bolstered by Cunningham’s vault, the Indians posted an impressive 29.2 points on vault, moving Portage to the top of the state finals standings, where they remained for the rest of the meet.
It was Barcelli’s team-first focus that brought Portage its first state title in 38 years, but she did take some time for some individual enjoyment of the victory.
“The trophy’s ridden around in the back of my car a few times like a baby,” she said with a laugh. “It finally got into the athletic office (last Tuesday). It’s still surreal.”