NOTE: This story appears in the February issue of the Heart River Voice, of which I am a contributing sports feature writer.
For 36 years, Kent Van Ells has overseen a gymnastics program that annually boasts around 300 athletes from ages 3 to 18.
It’s a time-consuming role with a loaded year-round schedule of late hours and long weekends. But all that time has been worth it for Van Ells.
Dickinson High School has won five of the past six North Dakota state gymnastics titles and will go for its fourth straight championship later this month during the state meet in Jamestown.
“A culture develops,” said Van Ells, who is both Dickinson High School’s head coach and the Dickinson Gymnastics Club coach. “The girls expect the other girls who are coming into the program to keep up with them. They expect to win and to be the best out there.”
In Van Ells’ 36 years as head coach, the Midgets have won nine state championships. The program has 12 titles overall.
As the Midgets enter their final month of the 2018-19 season, they boast the top-two ranked all-around performers in the state — junior Ayanna Fossum and senior Dacia Rambousek — and have six gymnasts with top-five ratings in either the all-around or individual events.
“I’ve been in gymnastics for 10-plus years, and thinking of it being over in a month or two is really hard to take,” said Rambousek, who is also ranked first in the balance beam.
Dickinson is far-and-away the top team in the state so far this year. Their all-around average team score is a full five points better than second-ranked Grand Forks. Yet, just like any other season, Van Ells said it isn’t without challenges.
“We didn’t have as much depth this year as we were expecting, but they’ve really come around and there appears to be enough depth to be fairly dominant,” he said, noting injuries and the loss of six gymnasts from last year’s championship team as other hurdles Dickinson has had to overcome.
While many North Dakota high school programs have had stints where they’ve splintered talent between the high school and local club programs, creating long stretches of down years for the high school program, Van Ells and Dickinson have maintained consistency for the better part of four decades.
Fossum, a homeschooled junior who commutes from Gladstone to Dickinson daily to compete for the Midgets, has witnessed the program’s slow build into the state’s powerhouse in the sport from the time she was a Tiny Tots gymnast. She remembers long before she was on the high school team — back when her older sister, Acacia, was just starting out on varsity as a seventh-grader.
“It wasn’t expected for us to win,” Ayanna Fossum said. “Now I think it’s kind of expected from people. If we lose, it’s rare.”
Van Ells believes the program’s emergence as a longtime state power can be traced back to the 2006-07 season when Dickinson won its first of back-to-back state titles — their first since consecutive wins under Van Ells in 1987 and 1988.
“Two years before we won the state meet in 2007 — which was really the start of the culture thing — we didn’t even qualify for the state meet,” Van Ells said. “That was the breakthrough.”
Since that 2007 title, Dickinson has never finished worse than second place at the North Dakota state gymnastics meet and its gymnasts have captured 24 individual state titles. The Fossum sisters alone have combined to win the past eight straight floor exercise state titles.
With Acacia Fossum leading the way from 2011 to 2016, the Midgets blossomed into the team to beat. Fossum finished as the most decorated gymnast in the Dickinson program’s history with 15 individual state titles, and the rating for the second-best all-around score (39.067 out of 40) and the best floor exercise score (9.867 out of 10) in state history.
Dickinson senior Meghan Ackerman said she learned a lot from teams captained by Acacia Fossum and Keana Kudrna, also a former state champion.
“They made sure everyone played a role,” Ackerman said. “Our seventh-graders have been competing every meet and they are up in those top rankings. We’ve let them know they can’t just rely on us — that it is a team effort.”
This season, like many others, veterans are beginning to pass on knowledge to the Midgets’ underclassmen. In gymnastics, that typically means girls who are still in junior high.
It has translated into eighth-grader Brooklyn Deguzman and seventh-grader Addison Fitterer being ranked fourth in the state in the all-around and balance beam, respectively.
“They come in and these older girls expect them to keep up,” Van Ells said. “You’d like to think it’s all coaching brilliance, but I think it’s a culture. The girls expect each other to do well.”
Passing that brand of leadership on to the next generation of gymnasts is part of the legacy Van Ells will leave at Dickinson, his gymnasts said.
“We have had different gymnasts come in and out with different talents and different abilities, but he has been a major part in how everything runs,” Rambousek said.
After more than three-and-a-half decades leading Dickinson’s gymnastics program, Van Ells said his retirement day is near.
If he does decide to hang it up after this season, or in the next few years, Van Ells may even end on an extremely high note. The four-time North Dakota High School Coaches Association coach of the year is a finalist for national coach of the year.
“I put in the time. My wife will attest to that,” he said with a smile.
Van Ells said he spends more time doing paperwork, determining schedules and paying bills than anyone often imagines.
Yet he’s quick to admit he may be a bit lost after he steps away from coaching.
“Evenings, that’ll be weird,” he said as he laughed. “Weekends? To me, that’s the weirdest thing. Sometimes I don’t know what I’m going to do with myself.”
Monke is the former editor and sports editor of The Dickinson Press. He has won multiple state and national awards for his writing and editing. If there’s a story on area prep or collegiate athletes you’d like him to pursue, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet him at monkebusiness.