Following a two-year hiatus, the Carrollton High School gymnastics squad is back on the big stage.
The Lady Trojans qualified for the GHSA Gymnastic State Championships on Friday at Ola High School in McDonough behind a stellar showing at this past weekend's state preliminary meet in Dunwoody, marking the program's first appearance in the final six since 2015 when the action begins at 7 p.m.
Carrollton finished in second place that year to Buford led by former star and state vault champion Kyndel Yett, who just wrapped up her junior campaign at Rhode Island College.
"It's nice. It's been a couple of years and last year we didn't even qualify to go to the state qualifying meet. We knew we were kind of rebuilding last year, so this year we've had a really good season. We've finished first, second or third usually at every meet out of nine, 10-team invitationals," Carrollton head coach Nicki McGovern said.
Carrollton seniors such as Raquel Upson and Helen Vissering had made it their goal to get back to state before their high school careers came to a close and they were able to put it all together for one final trip.
Upson, who will be competing on the vault and bars, is looking forward to one last opportunity to compete in her Black and Gold leotard against the best of the best come Friday night.
"I feel a little bit nervous. This is the best we've been in a long time since my freshman year. So it's really exciting to go to state because we haven't gone in a couple of years," Upson said.
Vissering was equally pumped to be a state-title contender as one of six squads left standing across all classifications.
"I'm super-excited. This is the furthest we've been in a long time. We have some very talented freshmen that are really going to pull through for us," Vissering said.
One of those talented freshman is Gabbie Willingham, who qualified as an individual in the all-around, floor and vault to lead the charge, while fellow freshmen Taylor White, Savanna Duncan and Chloe Culverhouse have also been instrumental in the return to the state finals. Meanwhile, sophomore standout Caroline Carter is another promising young star who is also competing in the all-around on Friday night.
"We really grew as a team over the season. We started pretty strong, but now that we're toward the end we've got a lot stronger," Carter said. "It feels really good because the past few years were off years a little bit. We hadn't qualified as a team. Now that we're back as a team, it feels really good."
Even though her squad is young, McGovern isn't stressing too much about the lights being too bright on Friday night. In addition to her efforts at the state qualifying meet for the Lady Trojans on Saturday, Willingham left straight from that competition down to Tampa for the Level 9 Regionals.
"So she just experienced a really large meet," McGovern said. "I think that's going to help us that she kind of got some of those nerves out there. Taylor and Savanna were both on our state championship cheerleading team, so they know how to compete. I'm not really concerned about the freshmen."
"North Oconee has a University of Florida commit and West Forsyth has a Missouri commit. So they have some strong talent there. Buford's kind of like we are. They're rebuilding with a younger team," McGovern said. "But anything can happen on any given day. You've just got to make it to that final dance and hope it goes our way."
McGovern purposely scheduled a regular-season competition at Ola just so her girls would get a feel for the environment, and she's hoping it pays off on their second visit.
The team is actually leaving for McDonough today after school for an overnight stay to be as mentally and physically prepared as possible for Friday night's grand finale.
"Our administration was very kind and allowed us to go (today) and spend the night and let them just be there and sleep in, relax and not have to be on a bus all day," McGovern said. "We have such a supportive administrative group at Carrollton, so we're extremely blessed that they're allowing us to do that. I think it will be good for them as well to have some team time to be together and stay in each others' heads, especially the seniors to the younger girls."
And with the biggest showcase of the season now just a day away, Carrollton is fired up about being back and hoping to go out with a bang.
"It's really exciting, especially for the freshmen who have never experienced this before," Upson said. "It's been a couple of years since we've done it, so it's cool to get back out there and have the rush of going to state."