LAGRANGE — Lakeland junior Emily Byler was the latest Laker gymnast to receive All-American honors from the National High School Gymnastics Association, as she earned them in vault and floor exercise for the 2019-20 season. In order to earn All-American honors through the NHSGA, an athlete must average a minimum score in the particular event. Byler averaged a 9.0 on the vault in 2019-20 (qualifying average is 8.70) and an 8.85 on the floor (qualifying average is 8.80).
Apparently, everyone knew about the news before Byler.
“I found out Saturday morning on my phone; everyone was like, ‘Congrats!’ and I was like, ‘On what?’ And then I went on social media was like, ‘Oh my gosh,’” Byler said. “I would’ve never expected this, honestly. I knew from people on Lakeland before that they had received it, and I thought it would be cool, but I never thought it would be in my future to get it. I just can’t believe it.”
After not competing in the sport her sophomore year, Byler decided to return to the team this past season. She’s been competing in gymnastics since she was three years old, but said she needed a year off for a few reasons.
“I just thought that I wasn’t enjoying it as much; I felt like I lost the love for it and just needed a break,” Byler said. “My sophomore year in soccer, I almost tore my ACL, so I needed a break.”
Returning for her junior year made longtime Lakeland gymnastics coach Sherill Habedank happy.
“When she got ahold of us and talked with us in the summer and just seeing she was kind of contemplating it, I was like, ‘Oh, that’s a nice surprise possibility,’” Habedank said. “To see that she took a year off, and then to come back, she really didn’t miss a beat.”
Byler was the top all-around performer for the Lakers in 2019-20. At the Wawasee sectional, she competed in all four events. Her best performance was in the floor exercise, scoring an 8.825 to finish 14th. Unfortunately, the score wasn’t high enough to advance her to the regional round.
She also scored an 8.65 in the vault (18th place), 7.60 on the bars (17th) and a 7.05 on the beam (28th) to finish with an all-around score of 32.125, good for 19th overall.
It was an overall disappointing sectional performance for Byler, especially in the vault. At the Lakeland Invitational earlier in the year, Byler finished sixth in the vault against most of her sectional competition. Her first vault attempt at sectionals was sub-par for her standards, though, and a strong second vault wasn’t able to salvage her score enough to advance to regionals.
“Sectionals was a little heartbreaking for me,” Byler said. “I knew the week before going into it that I had a chance to move on to regionals for vault because I was scoring high and you needed a low-9 to get on to regionals. … I think that the nerves just got to me on the vault.”
Habedank hopes to use the sectional as a learning experience for Byler this season.
“I think for her, it was a learning experience to really just take each meet as a preparation for the postseason,” Habedank said. “If she can practice that mindset at every meet that she’s at, I think she’ll be able to handle that a little bit better.”
The gymnastics team was supposed to be having open gyms all month, but those have been canceled from the COVID-19 pandemic. Byler will start shifting her focus to her senior soccer season in the fall before coming back to gymnastics in the winter.
Both Habedank and Byler have high expectations for Byler’s final season.
“Emily’s always been a really hard worker,” Habedank said. “She stays focused and she’s always been one to take instruction really well. I think if she can take those skills that she had this year and build the difficulty and build that finesse in her routines that she needs, she’s got great potential.”
“I’m ready for senior year and I’m excited,” Byler added. “I think if whole team can do well at sectionals and move on to regionals, that would be great. … That’s one of the short-term (goals); it, obviously, would be nice to go to state and all of that, but I’m just shooting to get past sectionals first.”