Gymnast of the Year: Washington Township’s Isabella Nelli

Nelli shined in her first season at Washington Township, winning the Olympic Conference all-around and finishing eighth at the NJSIAA Individual Championships.

Washington Township’s Isabella Nelli enjoyed a decorated freshman season in 2019, winning the Olympic Conference all-around title with a career-high score of 37.7 and then placing eighth in the all-around at the NJSIAA Individual Championships.

It only took a few months for Washington Township freshman Isabella Nelli to climb to the top of the South Jersey high school gymnastics mountain.

Nelli shined in her first season, leading the Minutemaids to a 7-1 season, winning the Olympic Conference all-around title and finishing in eighth place in the all-around at the NJSIAA Individual Championships. Some may call Nelli’s ascent awe-inspiring or extraordinary. Nelli chose to use another adjective.

“It was shocking,” Nelli said about her season. “I didn’t know what to expect and I just really was shocked.”

As shocking as it may have been, there was no doubt Nelli was South Jersey’s top gymnast by season’s end. Her consistently solid routines and outstanding performance at the conference championships and states makes her South Jersey Sports Weekly’s Gymnast of the Year.

Nelli entered high school gymnastics with a sparkling club resume. Competing as a level nine gymnast for Atlantic Coast Gymnastics last spring, Nelli was a top-ten finisher in her division at the Eastern National Championships in May. While other gymnasts sometimes decide to focus on club instead of competing in high school, Nelli decided to take a different route and join the Minutemaids for her freshman year.

“I knew some of the girls coming into it,” Nelli said. “I came in thinking I was going to make new friends, make new opportunities for myself. When I first had practice with them, I just bonded with them.”

Competing in both high school and club was not an easy task. Nelli needed to balance practices for both teams throughout the fall while also finding time to make it to Washington Township’s dual meets. Washington Township head coach Lauren Pellecchia-Kupiec helped her new gymnast with planning out the season.

“Prior to the season starting, we worked out a schedule that would benefit high school, that would benefit her and her club,” Pellecchia-Kupiec said. “It was a lot for her. A lot of days she was doing double practices. She did not miss a meet all season. She did every single thing that she possible could.”

Isabella Nelli smiles as she performs on the balance beam during the Olympic Conference Championships.

Another obstacle was the vast difference in scoring from club to high school. In order to overcome this, Pellecchia-Kupiec and Nelli created routines centered around her best skills from the club that would also score high on the high school rubric.

This would pay off in a big way once the season started as Nelli shined for the Minutemaids. In dual meets, Nelli was typically the highest-scoring gymnast, tallying consistent all-around scores of around 36 to 37 points. At the Olympic Conference Championships, Nelli had her best performance of the season, scoring a 37.7 in the all-around to finish in first place.

Nelli faced adversity on Nov. 2 when she struggled at the South Jersey sectional meet. While she was able to qualify for states, she finished in a disappointing fourth place with a score of 36.125 after struggling on one of her vault attempts and then later falling off the balance beam.

Pellecchia-Kupiec noted Nelli was mad at herself for not hitting her sectional routines, but admired her ability to get past that disappointment and focus on the state championships.

“I think she needed for herself to go out to states and show what she showed at conference,” Pellecchia-Kupiec said. “That’s what she did.”

At states, Nelli began her competition on the balance beam. She fell at sectionals while trying to land a back handspring with a back layout. Nelli realized completing this skill at states would be a big boost to her confidence moving forward.

“Beam is usually one of my harder events,” she said. “I just wanted to stay on and hit the one skill I fell on at sectionals.

“I nailed the skill,” Nelli continued. “The rest of the meet just went really smoothly from there.”

Nelli’s final score at states was 36.6, good enough to finish eighth overall in the all-around. She was the highest-finishing freshman at states and top among all South Jersey competitors.

Nelli wasn’t an ordinary freshman. She brought an air of confidence to the gym and gave a lift to her teammates at Washington Township. Pellecchia-Kupiec was impressed with Nelli’s ability to gel with the other girls even when balancing club and high school.

“Bella came on very talkative from the start, very open, very silly with all of the girls,” Pellecchia-Kupiec said. “She was just so excited to be there and she wanted everyone to know, I want to be here and I want to have fun.”

“The girls loved her,” Pellecchia-Kupiec added. “She really is hard not to love.”

Isabella Nelli (middle) smiles atop the podium after winning the Olympic Conference all-around title.

Nelli may have entered high school with a lot of talent and confidence, but she doesn’t believe she could have had such an outstanding season without the support of her team.

“Gymnastics is as much mental as it is physical,” Nelli said. “From a mental aspect, it’s a lot easier to perform when you have motivation and that support system helps you with that.”