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Emotional New Prague gymnasts win 1A title, honor coach

By JIM PAULSEN, Star Tribune, 02/22/13, 10:04PM CST


Two months after Matt Shetka died, his New Prague team won a state title for him.

Emotion simmered at Friday's Class 1A state gymnastics meet at the University of Minnesota Sports Pavilion.

Many New Prague fans wore black T-shirts that sported Matt Shetka's name across the back. When coach Doug Amundson watched his athletes perform their routines, he did so with a spot-on version of their beloved former coach's peculiar habit of seemingly looking away but actually watching them using only peripheral vision.

Shetka, who coached the team when the season began, died suddenly in December, felled by a heart attack while shoveling snow. His death rocked his team and the school, where he coached gymnastics and taught for all 33 years of his educational career.

As the Trojans wound up their day of competition on the balance beam, the presence of Shetka was even more palpable among the team's scores of followers who packed the pavilion.

New Prague posted a meet-record score of 37.9 on the beam, with fans roaring their approval. The event secured the Class 1A title for the Trojans.

"It was such a great motivation," said senior co-captain Sydney Samson with watery eyes. "Just to think how hard we worked for this and how happy he would be. He would be so proud of us."

New Prague finished with a school-record 149.6, more than 1.5 points better than runner-up and 2012 champion Melrose's 147.9.

Having dealt with the loss of Shetka all season, Amundson and assistant coach Nikki Fisher made a point of minimizing the emotions of the moment. They wanted their gymnasts to be occupied with the task at hand; motivation was the least of their worries.

"We wanted to downplay it until after the meet," Fisher said. "We wanted them to be focused on what they had to do."

New Prague started the meet strong with an exceptional score in the floor exercise and never trailed. Melrose, which entered the meet as the state's No. 1-ranked team, directly followed the Trojans in each rotation and did its best to stay close.

But with each event, it seemed clear that this was New Prague's day. By the time the team reached the balance beam, the momentum "just started building on itself," junior Sarah Hoffman said. "We were feeling very confident. One girl did it and then the next one did it. We felt like we couldn't miss."

When the Trojans had completed the event, their fans fidgeted nervously. When the results were announced, emotion bubbled over with cheers, tears and hugs, both in the stands and on the podium. Shetka's New Prague teams won state titles in 1984, 2001 and 2003. And now, 10 years later, the team he started the season with had done it again.

"The day after Matt passed, I asked the team if they wanted to change their goals and no one did," said Amundson, who began coaching with Shetka in 1990. "They dedicated their season to him and they came out and had a perfect meet. I feel like a proud parent."

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