It was the kind of evening Eagle Rock High School girls gymnastics Coach Janis Fries wished would never end.
After finishing runner-up for the Los Angeles City gymnastics championship for three straight years, Fries and Eagle Rock have captured consecutive City titles, including last Friday's 162.15-156.5 victory over top-seeded Venice.
The morning after the championship hoopla, Fries, 34, who is also a counselor, sat in her office gazing sleepily with bloodshot eyes at the championship trophy sitting proudly on her file cabinet.
"It was a great time from the second I stepped on the bus to the time we stopped eating at Bob's (Big Boy restaurant) at 1 in the morning," said Fries, reflecting on the championship day. "Sure I'm tired, but it's a good tired. My voice is almost gone, but I'm in a glowy state."
Defeated Tougher Foe
Fries has a right to be happy. The City championship is the second victory she has celebrated this year. In February, Fries had successful surgery to remove cancerous tissue from her cervix. She missed the first six weeks of the season.
"This has been an extra-special year. I not only defeated cancer, but I also had another bunch of winners," she said.
And they are young winners.
Unlike last year's championship squad, which included seven seniors, this team will lose only senior Suzy Debolt. Seven of the 14 gymnasts are freshmen.
"Last year's win was more emotional, but this year's was wonderful," said Fries, who had five members from last year's championship squad in the stands rooting for her youngsters.
Fries knew before the title meet that something special was going to happen when her gymnasts gave her a green T-shirt on the bus, with "We love you, Fries" printed in white on the front.
'Loved and Appreciated'
"When I got the shirt, I knew it was going to be a great night. It made me feel loved and appreciated. Every coach wants to feel like that. It made me realize that I've been absolutely right about every one of them, they're wonderful kids."
Once inside the Venice gym, the girls did little to disappoint Fries. Eagle Rock, which finished the year 8-0, outpointed Venice in every event.
"We had the edge from the beginning because we never had to play catch-up and they did. My kids just started out strong and stayed there throughout the meet," Fries said. "They performed the way I would expect a team competing for the championship to perform."
Although Eagle Rock was the underdog, Fries thought the Eagles, seeded No. 2, had a clear advantage.
"It was the first time all year I felt we had the edge going into a meet. I think we had the psychological edge because Venice was seeded No. 1. I don't think they were expecting us to do as well as we did."
Won on Balance Beam
The difference was Eagle Rock's performance on the balance beam. Three Venice gymnasts fell from the narrow beam, while all of Eagle Rock's girls remained steady.
"Our kids stayed on the beam and theirs didn't--that was the difference. I knew from the outset that whoever stayed on the balance beam would win, and our kids fought to stay."
Entering the balance beam, the Eagles held a slim one-point advantage but quickly improved their lead to about three points entering the floor exercises, the final event.
"My kids stayed on the beam, while the other team gave up on a trick when they were just about ready to fall. Our kids would just suck in their stomachs and give it all they had."
It was just a matter of experience, according to Fries.
"The difference between Venice and Eagle Rock was that we were finished," Fries said. "They were excellent but weren't as finished as we were. It was like watching Fred Astaire next to someone who is a good dancer.
Determined to Triumph
"We lost to San Pedro four years ago. My team was not polished and theirs was. After that loss, I told myself that we would be tight and straight from then on. That was the key against Venice."
Fries has made it a point to build her squad around a nucleus of girls with backgrounds in solid gymnastic clubs. Eagle Rock's top gymnasts, juniors Kim Stapp, sophomore Maria Lange and freshman Samantha Persi, had experience.
Lange, who performed for the Northeast YMCA program, topped all gymnasts in the championship meet with a 36.80 all-around score, followed closely by Stapp (Verdugo Gymnastics) and Persi (Northeast YMCA).
Eagle Rock also had inexperienced yet talented girls, including freshmen Bobbi Dudley and Danette Inzalaco. Both have learned a great deal watching the more-experienced gymnasts, Fries said.
The Venice meet was also a homecoming for Fries. Before coming to Eagle Rock seven years ago, Fries taught dance production and was a girls track coach at Venice.
"Going to Venice was like going home because I know the school, the people and the administration. That made it even more special."
Fries also shared the victory with Gloria Kalatzis, who came out of four-year retirement to fill in while Fries recovered from cancer surgery. Kalatzis was a Venice gymnastics coach.
"Fortunately (the cancer) was caught at an early stage, and the doctors were able to get it all," said Fries, who first learned of the cancer in November. "Now I feel better than I've felt in a long while."
Fries couldn't wait to get back to her team.