Culture of Champions: Van Ells has powerful Dickinson gymnastics team seeking fourth straight title

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.

Continue reading “Culture of Champions: Van Ells has powerful Dickinson gymnastics team seeking fourth straight title”

Soaring to New Heights: F-M Acro Team Providing Halftime Fun Since ’70s

As the background music paces their steps, Maggie Orseth and Amanda Kankelfritz shake off nerves and one after the other, run full speed down the basketball court toward a nine-foot-high human pyramid.

The packed Shanley High School gymnasium braces for a big finale.

“Is she going to make it? She has to make it,” Orseth said, imagining what the crowd must be thinking.

The two girls bounce off a mini-trampoline and soar gracefully over the pyramid, sending the capacity crowd into a frenzy.

“In a way, it (the crowd) makes us go higher,” said Kankelfritz, a senior at Fargo South. “It gives us more energy.”

As the crowd offers a standing ovation, Kankelfritz, Orseth and the rest of the Fargo-Moorhead Acro Team smile and wave back enthusiastically.

Since the 1970s, the Acro Team has become one of the top halftime entertainment groups in the country, performing in small high school gyms and large professional sports arenas.

What separates the Acro Team from other acts?

While others merely fill a gap between two halves, the Acro Team prides itself in keeping fans in their seats throughout the performance with one objective.

“Our goal is to bring people to their feet,” assistant coach Mike Ceyner said. “Always leave them wanting more.”

For more than 36 years, that’s what Jim Simle’s innovation has done.

The former high school basketball coach started the Acro Team as an opportunity for girls, including his daughter Stacey, to have another extra curricular activity.

“At the time, there wasn’t a lot of opportunities for girls,” said Stacey Simle-Askew, now the team’s head coach.

At first, both the performances and the teams were small. But as the team’s reputation grew, so did invitations to perform.

The team regularly performs at the North Dakota boys basketball state tournament and has been to the Minnesota Gophers basketball games at Williams Arena since 1975.

This year, the Acro Team will perform in eight major sports arenas and showcase its talent for local fans at high school and college basketball games.

Although it receives money to perform at professional and collegiate games, and has several area corporate sponsors, the Acro Team won’t accept any money or donations from the fans at any small town it visits.

Simle sees the event as more of a way to bring the team’s talents somewhere it would rarely ever go.

“If they have more people in the stands, we’ve helped them,” said the 66-year-old Acro Team director.

After all, the team didn’t get its start performing for the Milwaukee Bucks or Wisconsin Badgers – whose arena’s the team will visit in January.

“We had some humble beginnings,” Simle said. “If you forget where you come from, you’ve lost it.”

It would be hard for Simle and the team to forget their roots. They’re surrounded by the team’s history on a daily basis.

Tucked away in the American Gold Gymnastics building in south Fargo is a spiral staircase leading to an office with more than 30 years of Acro Team history on its walls.

Nearly every girl – and one boy – lucky enough to be selected to the Acro Team’s top squad is immortalized by photographs on the walls.

The photos show how the Acro Team became the nationally known entertainment group it is today.

Of the hundreds of photos, there are four with Michael Jordan, another with Julius Erving after his final regularseason game, and several others with music and movie stars and politicians.

“You get to see things kids my age never see and go places you wouldn’t get to go,” said West Fargo senior Jenessa Olson.

That outlook has kept the Acro Team fresh over the years.

Even though many Acro Team members remain through their senior year of high school, for every one who leaves there are several junior members vying for the spot.

Assembling the team and choosing new members requires countless hours of scouting and decision making by the coaches. Much of it begins the day a child joins the Fargo-Moorhead gymnastics program. From there, a few are asked if they’d like to be a part of the team. Today, there are five Acro Teams for different age groups.

“Right now it’s so full, with each team it’s difficult to add people,” Simle said.

The meticulous process has paid off. Each squad has the opportunity to bring its own flavor and skill. The 2005-06 Acro Team is no different.

Orseth and her twin sister, Mary, have been involved in gymnastics since they were in the sixth grade, the gymnastics equivalent of jumping into high school football as a senior.

“I’ve done track,” said Maggie Orseth, a Fargo South senior. “You can’t compare it. It’s so much more time consuming. We do so much more.”

Kankelfritz started the gymnastics process when she was 3. By the time she was 6, she was on an Acro Team.

Mallory Griggs, a freshman at Minnesota State Moorhead, has been with the team for seven years. Simle-Askew was the only other member to stay with the team into college.

Griggs said although she loves the team, her commitment to classes and the team had to be weighed.

“You just get swamped,” she said. “This kind of gets you away from it all.”

Griggs is leaning toward this being her last year with the Acro Team, even though she knows she might regret stepping away.

“It’s just a big part of my life,” she said.

Every metro high school is represented on the Acro Team, but there is one who makes devotes the majority of her after-school time to the team.

Katie Jensen drives an hour from her home in Chaffee, N.D., to practice.

“In the winter it’s longer,” said the Central Cass High School freshman.

Jensen said the opportunity to be a part of the Acro Team is second-to-none, even if it interferes with friendships, school and social lives.

“It’s hard sometimes,” she said. “I want to go do something with my friends, but I have to go here instead.”

Despite logging more miles than any other team or activity group in North Dakota will this year, the team manages to keep up with school work.

“We’ve never had to hold a kid (out of a performance) for grades,” Simle-Askew said.

As a reward for the hard work, the team gets to perform on some of the biggest stages in professional sport.

Madison Square Garden, home of the New York Knicks – and some of the National Basketball Association’s rowdies, most vocal fans – is an every-other-year stop for the Acro Team.

When the team finished its last performance there – they’ve entertained at the Garden five times – the reputedly harsh New York fans showed a side no one on the Acro Team expected.

“We had people telling us we were better than the game,” Maggie Orseth said. “They were so warm and receptive.”

It’s not a bad place to spot and meet celebrities, either.

Team members said catching a glimpse of movie star Brad Pitt in the audience at the Garden and meeting country music star Toby Keith at a University of Oklahoma men’s basketball game are among the high points of traveling with the team.

Keeping some of the most famous entertainers in the world in their seats at halftime takes time, hard work and a great routine.

Although it often leaves fans breathless, the choreography has its limits.

The Acro Team performs with two 72-foot springfloor runways, five crash pads and five mini-trampolines. The runways and trampolines were specifically designed by Ceyner, who also works as an electrical engineer.

“There’s only so many ways you can put the equipment,” Ceyner said.

Each year, new handstands, backflips and jumps are worked into the routine.

“I still get the chills up my spine when I see them perform,” said Sharon Jackson, mother of 14-yearold Acro Team member Lexi Jackson, a West Fargo freshman.

The team also has taken advantage of technological advances to improve its choreography and coaching.

If a team member feels one of her moves isn’t up to par, she can check out the replay on a digital video recorder that runs during practice.

When Ceyner joined the team as a coach in 1979, music for performances was played on records. Now, Ceyner uses an MP3 disc jockey system on a laptop computer.

“In the last two years, the technology existed where we can plug a computer into an arena,” Ceyner said.

As the team matures technologically, coaches have taken steps to ensure they mature socially. An etiquette exercise takes place at nearly every practice.

It’s all in an effort to live up to the team’s title as official goodwill ambassadors for North Dakota, a title given to the team by Gov. Allen Olson in 1981.

“You’re trying to build a good athlete,” Simle said. “But moreso, you’re trying to build a good person.”

As the team gathered for a post-performance meeting in Shanley’s practice gym, three young members of the Acro Lites team – none taller than the waist of anyone in the room – practiced summersaults off to the side, laughing and critiquing each other.

It brought a smile to Simle.

“The thing that has never changed are the kids,” Simle said. “They lead you.”