From the first back flip at yesterday's Park View Gymnastics Invitational in Sterling to the final vaults some four hours later, it was a close, three-team fight to the first-place pedestal on the awards stand. The gymnasts for Stafford, Stonewall Jackson and Loudoun Valley had determined looks and even grittier routines, but in the end it was Stonewall Jackson that won the team championship by less than three-quarters of a point.

"This is the potential that we have as a team, and now we just have to keep it going," said Stonewall Jackson co-captain Laura Hancock, after the Raiders finished the four events with a season-high team score of 143.125. Stafford placed second with 142.525 points and Loudoun Valley (142.45) finished third. "It was a good mark for us to make. We had one fall this meet compared to nine falls last meet. That just says it all right there."

Stonewall Jackson and Stafford compete in the same region -- the Virginia AAA Northwestern -- and last season it was Stafford that finished a few tenths ahead of the Raiders for second place at the region meet, earning a berth to the state championships while Stonewall stayed home.

Yesterday, the Raiders turned the tables.

Stonewall opened on the balance beam -- arguably the most difficult apparatus on which to begin -- and got superb routines across the board, with only one fall for the entire set. Hancock had a 9.4, freshmen Isabelle Schumaker and Erin Stack earned 9.0 and 8.8, respectively, and sophomore Carol Reed's 8.9 gave the Raiders a 36.1 score for the event. No other team would score better on the beam as the day progressed.

The meet could have turned on a single routine. Loudoun Valley had the best overall floor score, led by junior Alicia Essex (9.425) and sophomore Shannon Cain (9.35), but slipped a bit on the uneven bars; Stafford also excelled on floor and beam (behind veterans Jen Little and Colleen Schwartz and newcomers Angie Clements and Allison Brooks), but the Indians, too, had some trouble on the bars.

Individually, Colonial Forge freshman Rachel Gentry scored a 9.7 (the highest score for any event) on balance beam in the meet's final routine to capture the all-around with 36.675. Essex was second with a 36.625, while Cain and Stack tied for third (36.60).

In addition to winning beam, Gentry also won floor exercise with 9.45.

"I had no idea [I would win all-around]," Gentry said. "I was kind of disappointed on bars and vault. I knew on floor I did pretty good and I knew on beam I had to finish with a pretty good one. So I just went up there and went for it."

Loudoun Valley's Cain, performing the most difficult vault of the day, a front-handspring into a front tuck, won the event with a 9.45 when she stayed on her feet upon landing. Stonewall Jackson's Stack won the uneven bars with a 9.45, on a routine that began with a nice straddleback and finished with a full twist layout dismount.

Park View won the lower division title (the meet was divided into two divisions based on team strength) with 124.50. Stone Bridge was second with 111.30

Loudoun Valley Coach Jennifer Cooper likes what she sees, as Alicia Essex flips off beam, takes second all-around.