While most fall high school athletes head out onto the fields behind Washington Township High School after school each day for practices and games, a group of girls stays inside and heads down to the 9/10 gym to set up a balance beam, vault and high bars.
The Washington Township gymnastics team starts and ends its practice the same way each day. The team gathers as a unit to set up its equipment and comes together again after practice to break everything down. Every home meet, they get decked out in the school’s red, white and blue colors. Every away meet, they proudly walk into the opposing gyms wearing their Washington Township jackets. They gather for pasta parties, volunteer and hang out together in and out of school
Washington Township gymnastics is as tight-knit as any varsity team at the school. The team’s bond has been a crucial part to making the program South Jersey’s most successful in recent years.
In the small world of South Jersey high school gymnastics, Washington Township stands out from the field. The Minutemaids have been an annual contender in the five-team Olympic Conference over the past half of a decade, winning the last three conference championships and recording five consecutive winning seasons as well as a sectional title in 2015. Recently, Washington Township’s achievements were recognized on a state level as head coach Lauren Pellecchia-Kupiec was named the National Federation of High Schools New Jersey State Coach of the Year.
Ask any of the gymnasts on Washington Township why their program is so successful and they’ll name a variety of factors ranging from the team’s family-like bond to a culture of hard work. One thing they agree on is that Pellecchia-Kupiec, the Minutemaids’ third-year head coach, deserves much of the credit for the team’s success.
Pellecchia-Kupiec has been a part of Washington Township gymnastics for many years. She competed for the Minutemaids in the late 1990s and came back to the program as an assistant coach in 2006 alongside Glinnie Elmore. She took over as head coach in 2017.
“My biggest thing with the environment of the team and the culture of the team is to be a family,” Pellecchia-Kupiec said. “Togetherness, positivity, being there together through the ups and the downs, having fun, but most of all, working hard and being dedicated.”
Washington Township’s roster is a diverse group, with athletes ranging from high-level club gymnasts to some with no club experience at all. Even with this wide range, everyone gets an opportunity to compete for spots in the varsity lineup and everyone comes together as a unit.
“When you do club, it’s for yourself and you’re doing it for yourself,” sophomore Gabby Vetere said about the differences between club and high school. “Here, it’s just so much different. You’re all together as one and you compete as a (team).”
Freshman Isabella Nelli, a level 10 gymnast with Atlantic Coast Gymnastics, said the team’s tight bond is a big reason why she decided to compete in high school in addition to club.
“I wanted to compete in high school to do something for my school,” Nelli said. “I thought it’d be a great opportunity to make more friends and meet new people coming into a new school and new environment.”
One reason why Pellecchia-Kupiec believes the program has been successful in attracting athletes to try out for the team is the program’s emphasis on tradition.
“When I first started coaching here with Glinnie, they had kind of lost of that (tradition) through the years,” Pellecchia-Kupiec said. “That was a huge missing part of this team. In the first couple years I was here, that was something Glinnie and I brought back.”
“There’s a lot of tradition,” junior captain Avarie Berndmaier said. “There’s things we’ve done since way before me. We set up the same way every day. Every home meet, we dress up, every away meet, we wear our apparel. It’s almost out of respect that we follow it.”
While the family bond and tradition at Washington Township is certainly strong, it takes more than that to create a winning program.
“It’s a culture of hard work,” junior Nikki Iatarola said. “It is a varsity sport and only five people compete in each event, so it’s hard to get a spot. One of the main things (Pellecchia-Kupiec) told us is that we may have a lot of skill, but if don’t have a good work ethic or if our attitude is bad, she won’t put us on an event.”
“She pushes us to do our best, no matter what,” Crabtree said of Pellecchia-Kupiec. “Her energy pushes us all the time. She makes you work your hardest, which is what gets us to that (high) level.”
The team believes Pellecchia-Kupiec’s dedication to Washington Township and the sport is unmatched. When speaking about her coach’s recent award, senior Julia Robinson believes Pellecchia-Kupiec was very deserving because of the amount of time she puts into the program.
“She’ll stay up all night writing up routines,” Robinson said.
“She has a lot of expertise on the sport,” Iatarola added. “She’s really good at what skills will score the best. That’s imperative for how we’ve been doing.”
Pellecchia-Kupiec doesn’t want to take the credit for Washington Township’s success. She believes all of the victories, the family atmosphere and the tradition is made possible by the gymnasts who are determined to build a legacy.
“I can lead by example, but at the end of the day, it’s all them,” Pellecchia-Kupiec said. “They are the athletes, they are the team, they are the core of it.”