The biggest push of the winter high school athletic calendar is January and February and there is a lot riding on the next six weeks for the defending state champion gymnastics team.

While the Lakers are concentrating on the daily grind to improve, the near future holds the difficult tasks of a seventh consecutive Section 8A title and a sixth straight state championship.

In putting together the streak of five Class A wins, the team almost made it seem effortless to repeat, smashing state scoring records and surpassing 150+ points per meet regularly.

The 2019 senior group and junior Jackson Hegg made winning the team event look easy and backed it up with a sweep of all four individual events on day two at state.

What a performance to have to follow.

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Hegg has contributed to all five state title teams. She is back in impressive form through the early going and is essential to Laker success beyond this year. She is the prototype for all those coming up behind her and exudes the confidence in her proven ability to perform her best at the biggest moments.

That time will come before state this season.

Gabby Whitworth performs a backflip on balance beam in the season-opener against Park Rapids at the Minnesota Flyers Gymnasium in December. Whitworth and teammate Jackson Hegg are both returning top five section all-around performers. Robert Williams / Tribune
Gabby Whitworth performs a backflip on balance beam in the season-opener against Park Rapids at the Minnesota Flyers Gymnasium in December. Whitworth and teammate Jackson Hegg are both returning top five section all-around performers. Robert Williams / Tribune

Getting out of the section will be as tough a test as state in 2020. The Section 8A championship will be held Saturday, Feb. 15 in Morris.

Competition in 8A has been a two-team race between Detroit Lakes and Perham dating back to 2002. This season brought the addition of Melrose to create, hands down, the most demanding test of all eight sections in Class A.

Incredibly, Perham (8), Detroit Lakes (5) and Melrose (2) account for 15 of the last 16 Class A state team championships.

The Dutchmen are led by senior Camryn Brinkman. She placed fourth behind Hegg in the state all-around last year and also reached the podium on vault.

Melrose has put together the best start of the three teams earning a No. 3 mark in the first Class A gymnastics rankings of the season with a scoring average of 140.592.

Detroit Lakes (138.883) and Perham (138.513) are sixth and seventh, respectively.

The top three 8A teams own just less than half of the top seven Class A rankings and those scoring averages are going to go up across the board in the next six weeks.

Both Perham and Detroit Lakes have competed this far without a full lineup.

The teams battled to a half-point differential in the first of two duals this season. Perham was without Brittney Lorentz. DL was missing sophomore Ellie Hultin and a fully healthy Gabby Whitworth, a freshman.

A healthy Hultin really amps up the numbers on DL’s side and Whitworth was fifth in the section all-around as a freshman in 2019.

Ellie Hultin is scheduled to return to the Lakers after a one-year absence recovering from a knee injury. Her scoring input will be a big boost for the five-time defending state champions. Robert Williams / Tribune
Ellie Hultin is scheduled to return to the Lakers after a one-year absence recovering from a knee injury. Her scoring input will be a big boost for the five-time defending state champions. Robert Williams / Tribune

Hultin is someone Hegg refers to as “our big scorer,” which alone states how big Hultin’s return will be to the team.

Hultin competed at state last year on bars with a recently-injured knee. Her recovery has taken a full calendar year.

DL’s one-two punch of Hegg and Hultin give the talented group of freshmen Jerzie Horner, Whitworth and Ari Leitheiser, along with sophomores Jordan Ehnert and Skylar Nelson, room to breathe the next six weeks.

They can perfect their routines and tune their spots in the lineup with the comfort of the two all-around scorers leading the way.

The Lakers outscored both Melrose and Perham in winning a sixth straight Jackie Mann title in Perham early in the season. Melrose bested DL at the Brainerd Invite.

Perham has its own experienced duo in all-around expert and 2017 state bars champion Jada Olsen, along with senior Dena Fischer, a state qualifier last year on bars.

Perham junior Jada Olsen is one of the favorites to capture the section all-around title in mid-February at the 8A championships. She was the silver medalist last season behind Detroit Lakes' Cora Okeson. Robert Williams / Tribune
Perham junior Jada Olsen is one of the favorites to capture the section all-around title in mid-February at the 8A championships. She was the silver medalist last season behind Detroit Lakes' Cora Okeson. Robert Williams / Tribune

For Melrose, Brinkman is joined by freshman Courtney Althaus leading the Dutchmen.

Olsen (1), Hegg (2), Whitworth (7), Althaus (8), Horner (9) and Brinkman (10) were top 10 all-around finishers at Jackie Mann.

Each of those gymnasts will be key to which team is going to advance to state.

Individually, the state all-around title is wide open. The current gold medal holder Bella Frattalone of Mahtomedi will be competing in Class AA. Mahtomedi was one of five teams to jump up from Class A this year.

The Section 8A championship meet in Morris is going to be one not to miss. The past few years Detroit Lakes has been in command after three rotations. This year the final rotation is set for high drama.

All three teams meet again prior to that showdown in Morris.

DL and Melrose will compete at Lakeville North January 11. Perham hosts the Lakers in a dual January 21 and travels to Melrose Jan. 30.

All three teams will likely meet in Melrose on Jan. 25 at the Coaches' Association Class A Invitational. The teams participating have not yet been officially announced.