Maryland is not, and never has been, a hotbed for boys gymnastics talent.

In fact, when the National High School Coaches Association conducted its inaugural national gymnastics championships four years ago, Maryland was advised by a judge to leave its boys team home to "avoid embarrassment."

Old Mill coach Jack Bliss heeded the judge's words that year and kept his male contingent at home.

To this day, he regrets having done so.

"I later called him (the judge) and jumped all over his case and asked him why I can't send my boys out there," said Bliss. "I'll admit, we weren't good the first year we went out, but by sending kids out there, it stimulated the programs at the high school level."

Five of the county's premier senior gymnasts -- four boys and onegirl -- leave today torepresent the state in the national meet at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo.

Old Mill's Caryn Sanders will be Anne Arundel's lone female ambassador. She will be joined by fellow Patriot Shawn Riddell, Chesapeake's Melvin Long and Andy Densmore, and Meade's Dennis Jones.

Accompanying the gymnasts and Bliss will be Chesapeake coach Kerry Bruce, who was named the state coach by virtue of having two of his gymnasts on the squad.

"The trip is going to be the icing on the cake for these seniors," said Bruce, who is making his first trip to the national meet. "It's a payoff for all the hard work they've put in over the three or four years they've been in the sport.

"This facility (the Olympic Training Center) is where a lot of the ESPN gymnastics meets are filmed, andfor the kids, it's like a Little League baseball player being able to play a game in Yankee Stadium. It's a chance for the kids to go andwork on the ultimate equipment at the ultimate place."

Bliss, whois making his third trip to the competition, is confident that the experience will be both challenging and memorable.

"I think it's something they'll never forget," said Bliss. "How many times do you geta chance to see an Olympic training ground? That in itself is something they'll never forget. Plus, the competition is awesome. There aresome real talented individuals out there."

Preliminaries will take place Friday night, and only the top eight male and female performers will be invited back to compete in Saturday's finals.

Long, whostarted gymnastics eight years ago in the now-defunct Tumble Weed program in Millersville, just hopes to be competing on Saturday.

"I've heard that the competition we face is really high," said Long, thestate's top-qualifying male.

"In the floor (exercise) I think I can do as well as anyone who competes there. I just hope I do well enough to come back Saturday. I imagine it will be scary at first and then we should get used to it. I think it will pump us up a little bit."

Riddell, the state's No. 2 qualifier, said he didn't have quite the senior year he had hoped and is looking to salvage something at the nationals. While Riddell would like to place at the meet, he has set what he feels are more realistic goals.

"I'm hoping to beat Melvin (Long) and I want to score more than a 40 all-around," said Riddell, who placed fourth in the states on the high bar. "Even though we're teammates now, I want to see if I can get a higher scorer than him.

"We were against each other all season and now we're working together, but I still want to beat him. If I get a higher score, it improves the team score. Counties and states didn't go so well this year for me. I was hoping to do a lot better. But, if I can hitsomething in this national competition, that would finish the season off right."

The tournament's timing, which conflicted with Chesapeake's commencement ceremonies Saturday morning, forced Long and Densmore to decide whether to cross the stage with the rest of their class or competein the national meet. While the decision was not easy, the duo optedto bypass graduation.

Old Mill's evening graduation ceremony Saturday should provide Sanders and Riddell with ample time to don their cap and gown. However, if Sanders and Riddell were to advance to the finals, they would have to miss their flight to compete -- something that, at this juncture, is out of the question.

"As you know, the decision (concerning graduation) usually isn't the student's," said Bruce. "Graduation is for grandma and grandpa.

"She (Sanders) should do real well out there. She has a good private-team background, andshe's been skilled in gymnastics since she was a small kid. She's got a really good possibility of making it to the finals."

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