When Virginia high school gymnasts take to the floor this weekend in the competition for state honors, Northern Virginia will be well represented.
In fact, the area may be too well represented.
"Our girls (from Northern Virginia) may make it very hard for a local school to place high enough in each event to win a team championship," says Alice Gooley, coach at South Lakes High School in Reston.
The top three all-round individual performers -- Cathy Ripley of Lake Braddock, Dana Hankinson of West Springfield and Jennie Tomlinson of South Lakes -- were separated by just eight-tenths of a point when the final scores were tallied at the Northern Region championship last weekend.
Ripley, the defending state champion in all-round competition, won her second consecutive regional title as she led Lake Braddock to the team crown. Lake Braddock, coached by Cathy's mother, Ann Ripley, also is the defending state champion in the team competition.
Woodson placed second at the regionals, 8.8 points behind Lake Braddock, with South Lakes, just four-tenths of a point behind Woodson, coming in third. Fourth place was taken by the West Springfield team.
In the upcoming state competition, which begins at 6:50 tomorrow and concludes Saturday at Park View High School in Sterling, the top four Northern Region schools will have 30 spots in the four events -- vaulting, balance beam, floor exercise and uneven bars.
Only the 12 top scorers in each event count toward team totals. With a minimum of 36 competitors in each event, the competition for those top dozen spots is expected to be tough.
For Northern Virginia teams seeking a state title, the competition is expected to be especially fierce since some of the strongest gymnasts are from this area.
The new strength of the Northern Virginia teams was first seen two years ago when a state rule governing private club and high school competition was revised. The rule prohibited gymnasts from competing for private club and school teams at the same time.
Since the lifting of the ban, Northern Virginia has dominated state competition, with Woodson winning the state title in 1978 and Lake Braddock in 1979.
Coaches say the training and competition schedules of private clubs are the major factors that help produce outstanding gymnasts.
"These private clubs give the schools people with outstanding training," says Gooley.
Adds Woodson coach Peggy Bialla, "Private competition is intense. In the season from November through March, they might compete in 15 to 25 meets."
Cathy Ripley is a club gymnast turned high school star. ripley, a 17-year-old junior, began private competition in the fifth grade. When she entered Lake Braddock, she wanted to compete for the school team and the private club. But her club didn't endorse the idea, so Ripley changed clubs.
Her career, however, nearly ended two years ago, when she lost control of the uneven bars and fell to the mat. The result was broken and chipped bones in her left arm.
After one operation and therapy fives times a day, Ripley returned to all-round competition in February 1978. A year later, she won the state championship.
"I wanted to recover so bad, so I really pushed it," Ripley says.
Ripley now has two-hour workouts five days a week at school and three days a week at her private club. Ann Ripley sums up her daughter's determination.
"For success," Ann Ripley says, "it's pretty much a matter of year-round practice. The motivation must be there. It becomes a matter of heart, dedication, competitive spirit and the ability to stay cool under pressure."
Being No. 1 has made it difficult for Cathy Ripley at times, but she has learned -- to focus her concentration.
"So many people want to knock you off -- that's natural," she says. "I feel the pressure an awful lot just before the meet, but once in the gym I just block out everyone else and do the best I can."
Ripley was not entirely pleased with her performance at the regional competition, where she fell on landing after the vault and slipped on the balance beam. But her over all performance in both events, strong work on the uneven bars and a floor exercise that an opposing coach called "very dramatic and expresive" more than compensated for her problems.
Still, Ripley knows there is no room for errors this weekend. "There are the other all-rounds from around here, and I'm sure there are other strong girls from around the state to worry about," she says. "I'll have to have my problems ironed out."
Despite the overall strength of the Northern Virginia teams this year, area coaches believe it won't be long before the rest of the state catches up.
"We've had private gyms longer up here," says Ann Ripley. "But in recent years, many other areas of the state have established their own private clubs."
Coaches also note that some private clubs still refuse to let their gymnasts compete on high school teams.
"I don't blame them," Woodson coach Bialla said. "They have better equipments in the clubs than in the schools. That allows really advanced girls to work on more difficult tricks -- tricks that wouldn't be safe on the high school equipment."
But most coaches say there is a growing trend toward more private clubs in the state, with more of those gymnasts competing on club and schools teams. If that trend continues, the coaches say, the state will see better gymnasts -- and more competition for Northern Virginia.