Shaping a winner: New coach putting together a top-notch gymnastics program at East RidgeIn college, Brittany Simmons studied architecture and graphic design. But right now, she’s shaping a winner at East Ridge High School.
By: Patrick Johnson, Sports Editor, South Washington County Bulletin
In college, Brittany Simmons studied architecture and graphic design.
But right now, she’s shaping a winner at East Ridge High School.
Simmons, East Ridge’s new gymnastics coach, has the reins of a program that is growing in numbers and rising up the state rankings.
The Raptors are currently undefeated in the Suburban East Conference at 4-0 and No. 6 in the Class AA state rankings. East Ridge has averaged a score of 139.515 in its first six meets. In its most-recent meet, the Raptors scored a school-record 142.615 in a win over defending conference and section champion Park.
Simmons, 24, was an assistant coach for East Ridge last year under Christine Askham, who coached the Raptors in the program’s first two years.
“It was hard at first, because the girls knew me as the assistant coach,” Simmons said. “For me to jump to head coach was a challenge. But, I didn’t change much. Christine really taught me a lot and I wanted to keep her views and philosophies, because we believe in the same goals.”
This year, East Ridge has 20 girls in its program – up from 14 last season.
East Ridge is led by returning Raptors gymnasts Leah Robinette, a senior captain, eighth grader Megan Trollen and junior Keliana Thompson. In addition, sophomore Kelly McKenzie joined the Raptors after helping Park finish third in the state meet last season.
“We have a lot of new faces this year, but our varsity, besides Kelly, is exactly the same as last year,” Simmons said. “Our girls are just getting better. They’re working harder and working year-round, which helps a lot. A lot of the new girls are coming up and doing really well. They’re kind of silently sneaking up on the varsity and challenging them.”
Robinette said she likes what she's seeing in her final year of high school gymnastics.
“It seems like we’re working a lot harder this year,” she said. “We’re more consistent with our routines I think.”
Not too long ago Simmons was competing herself.
Simmons first trained in gymnastics when she was 3 year old. She participated in competitive club gymnastics until seventh grade, as a Level 9 gymnast, and she began her career as a decorated high school athlete. Simmons was a captain and four-time MVP in gymnastics at Park Center High School. She was also a captain, two-time state qualifier and MVP in diving and was a captain and state qualifier in track and field for the Pirates. Her senior year, Simmons was named the Park Center Athena Award winner and Female Athlete of the Year.
In her bourgeoning coaching career, Simmons has held positions as a gymnastics instructor across the metro area including youth programs at the YMCA, The Little Gym of Burnsville and Minnetonka's Community Education programs. She has also coached competitive Midwest Amateur Gymnastics Association (MAGA) teams in Minnetonka.
Since joining the East Ridge staff last year, she coached private lessons in District 833 and led the Raptors’ Gymnastics Kick-Off Camp in the summer.
Simmons is following in her mom’s footsteps as a coach.
“I’d help her all the time when I was a kid and she did a lot of sideline coaching when I was competing,” she said. “I’ve always had the inner drive to be a leader and I always hoped to be a coach of a high school team. I didn’t know it was going to happen this soon.”
Simmons said she “absolutely loves” coaching, but didn’t realize just how much work it is until she was doing it.
“You need social skills and finance skills and your overall vision and communication need to be on point to run a smooth and effective program,” Simmons said. “There are times I doubt myself, but I have great assistant coaches and parents that help support me and I have been able to impress myself with my knowledge every day and am proud of myself. We’re on the right track and things are going smoothly.”
This winter Simmons brought in assistants Andre Tieva and Dani Medin to help out.
Tieva was previously with Rosemount and Medin was coaching in Chisago Lakes.
This year, East Ridge will undoubtedly pass its five conference wins from last year and should compete for a conference championship title, along with Park and powerhouse Roseville – which is ranked first in the state with a 144.2 average score.
Along with its head-to-head meet with Roseville on Feb. 9, the Section 3AA Championship meet – on Feb. 16 – is circled on East Ridge’s calendar, when the Raptors will have to face off with Park once again in order to reach the state meet as a team and as individuals.
Last year, East Ridge took fourth place as a team at the section meet with a season-high 141.150 score. Out of sections, the winning team and the top four individual finishers in each event qualify for the state meet. Robinette was East Ridge’s lone qualifier for the state meet. She reached state in every event but the floor exercise. She went on to medal twice in the Class AA individual state meet earning fourth place in the vault and fourth place on the bars.
“Leah has always been an exceptional gymnast and a great leader,” Simmons said. “You can see the fire in her when she competes. She brings gymnastics to life. It’s really a joy to watch.”
In its first year of existence East Ridge competed in Class A and was just shy of reaching the state meet as a team, finishing runner-up at the Section 1A championships with a score of 141.65. Individually, however, East Ridge sent three gymnasts —Robinette, Thompson and McKenzie — to the state meet in year No. 1.
“The girls are doing a really good job,” Robinette said. “I think we can have a few more girls go to state this year.”
Simmons believes people should keep their eyes in East Ridge – not only this year, but down the road as well.
“We have a powerful varsity team and a very good group of up-and-comers,” she said. “They’re getting better every day and are going to be girls to watch in the next few seasons.”