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Park of Cottage Grove coach Mark Sikich worked with Morgan Schank during practice on Tuesday. Sikich is a member of the Minnesota Girls Gymnastics Coaches Association Hall of Fame. Photo by CARLOS GONZALEZ • cgonzalez@startribune.com

Mark Sikich didn't know a ton about gymnastics growing up. Now, with more than 30 years of coaching under his belt, he's about to call it a career, and an illustrious one at that.

"You talk about diversity," Sikich laughed. "I'm an old Iron Ranger, I'll tell you what. Northern Minnesota. Gymnastics? The only gymnastics experience I had was in high school in gym class. My background was very, very limited."

The varsity football and tennis player went on to play in college at Concordia (St. Paul) while double majoring in elementary and physical education. He took a three-year gymnastics course that led him to his first head coaching job at St. Paul Central. Sikich helped take some girls to the state tournament shortly thereafter before taking a teaching and coaching job in his hometown of Hibbing.

After one year, he was hired at Park High School in Cottage Grove as a physical education teacher and gymnastics assistant coach to Mike Amidon. Seven years later, he took over the program. Now, in his 30th season coaching multiple sports at Park, he sports an iron-clad gymnastics résumé.

Last season Sikich, a member of the Minnesota Girls Gymnastics Coaches Association Hall of Fame, was named Coach of the Year for the third time. The Wolfpack, a consistent top-10 team, has qualified for the state tournament 15 times. Park won the Class 2A team championship in 2004.

"Gymnastics has been one of the most successful programs we have at Park," school Activities Director Phil Kuemmel said. "One of the huge reasons behind that is Mark. He has left his imprint on Park gymnastics forever."

Sikich's longevity, commitment and passion for the program will be sorely missed, but Park gymnastics still has a very bright future. The junior varsity squad is performing well this season. Sikich also has been grooming co-head coach Terry Hardy, who will take over the program full-time next season.

"Any time an individual spends that much time with one program and has had the success that Mark has had, it is very hard to see them leave," Kuemmel said. "Would I like Mark to stick around for another 10 years? Absolutely.''

But Kuemmel said the Sikich-to-Hardy transition has been in the works ''for the last couple of years so that Terry will be able to take over the program and continue the rich tradition of Park gymnastics that Mark has cultivated."

Not only does the team's future look promising, but Park is having a tremendous season this winter.

Kasondra Tulloch and Rachel Deephouse are returning state meet medalists. Mckay Zurn has been very consistent, sophomore Sarah Schank is showing noteworthy potential. Many other gymnasts are helping put together a strong team that is looking to make moves in February.

The Wolfpack has a big meet on Thursday against Roseville for the Suburban East Conference championship. Sections will be held on Feb. 15, making the home stretch for Sikich's final season a thrilling one. The state meet is Feb. 22-23.

But it's never about Sikich, it's always about the children. The longtime coach will continue teaching and serving as a football assistant. He felt it was just time to move on in gymnastics. He wants to spend more time with his own kids while making sure the right commitment level is still present with the kids in the gymnastics program.

"That's one thing I wanted to promise myself and promise the kids," Sikich said. "If I didn't have the energy to coach the kids, I didn't want to cheat them."

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