Four years ago, Whitman gymnastics coach Jack Leonard had an idea and acted upon it. The rewards have been pouring in every since.
Thursday, Leonard's squard defeated traditional gymnastics power Wheaton for only the second time in the school's history to cap an undefeated league season at 6-0.
Performing before two nationally rated judges, the Vikings captured first, second and third places in all except two events for a 125.55-98.66 victory. The team heads for Tuesday's Montgomery County championships with a 147-point team lead.
"It all started when I returned from Ohio State in 1973," said Leonard, a graduate of Einstein High who went on to become a five-time national tumbling champion. "I was hired as a phys-ed teacher at Pyle Junior High and also landed a job as Whitman's gymnastic coach.
"I knew I had a great opportunity because Pyle graduated its students to Whitman. It occurred to me that it would be a good idea to start giving my younger kids advanced training so when I got them in high school, they'd be ready for even harder material. My goal was to create college-level gymnasts . . . that's what we now have on this team."
Signs of the farm system's success showed last year when the Vikings turned two seasons of struggling at .500 into a 5-1 campaign, finishing third in the county. That effort earned Leonard the Montgomery County gymnastics coach of the year award.
In compiling its untarnished slate this season, Whitman was never challenged, accumulating a higher point total each successive meet, often doubling and tripling opponents' scores.
"This squad is superby balanced and it is very unusual for a team to build up a point lead like they have before the championships," said judge George Bryant. "They're right up there with any of the Northern Virginia schools."
The nucleus of the team consists of Donny Hinton, Steve Parnell and Jay Robards. The trio has dominated the all-around competition, amassing three-fourths of the Vikings' points each outing.
Hinton excells in the floor exereses, in which he rang up one of the highest scores of the season, 9.1. Parnell took a summer to relearn his tumbling techniques and, when he returned this year as a senior, he possessed a fludity that few in the league have matched.
Robard's asset is his ability to perform a number of the all-around events consistently well. A fourth gymnast, Ron Silburstein, specializes in the hanging rings. In the Wheaton meet, the crowd erupted with cheers as he excuted one of the event's most difficult maneuvers, the "iron cross L."
"It's all very satisfying for me and the kids to see the continuing improvement," said Leonard. "Everybody's got there own coaching ethic. Mine is just to treat every one of them equally because you never know whether a kid is going to turn into a champion."
"Gymnastics is such an intense sport that it realy demands emotional strength as well as physical," he continued. "I've tried to create a situation where if a kid has a problem about anything at all, he can come to me. We work with each other and we try to help each other out."
To improve awareness, concentration and the ability to anticipate, Leonard advises his squard to watch movies of themselves.
In addition to the 2 1/2-hour gym workouts after school, most of the team members go through muscle-toning exercises each day at home, and even mini-workouts on makeshift balance beams constructed by Leonard.