Woodstock Academy’s gymnastics dynasty has been formed by family inside an old armory

KILLINGLY — Woodstock Academy started on the bars Saturday at the CIAC gymnastics State Open, and Taylor Markley was pleased with her first warm-up.

Suddenly, a delay. There was a problem with the tension cables on the bars at New Milford High.

“We were just standing there for a good 10 minutes,” said Markley, whose brief second warm-up wasn’t nearly as satisfying. “It was cold in there, too, so that wasn’t helping.”

Performing last for her team, the wait was that much longer. In a sport requiring laser focus and precision, such matters can be unnerving.

“As I was about to go for my routine, I saw my mom was standing right in front of me,” Markley, a junior, said. “Usually I hate it when she does that. But for some reason I looked at my mom and I was like, ‘I can do this.’

“I went and after I had my second release back to the low bar, I saw her again. We made eye contact …”

While you were performing?

“Yeah,” she said.

“Taylor just nailed the bar routine right to the stuck dismount,” coach Kasey Tocchio said. “You could just see all eyes turn to watch her, which was really cool.”

Markley won the event with a 9.75. Thanks mom.

Markley went on to win every event as Woodstock Academy, which has captured 11 consecutive class championships, took its eighth of 10 State Opens.

A 9.65 on beam, 9.575 on floor, 9.8 on an especially big vault made Markley the All-Around Champion with a season-high combined score of 38.775. She also cleaned up that little problem of stepping out of bounds before a tumbling pass in floor at the Class M meet.

“She had little wobbles on beam,” Tocchio said, “but Taylor was just spectacular. Really her best meet.”

Markley will have a chance to do even better Saturday in the New England championship at Fairfield Warde.

Here’s the bad news for the rest of the state. Immensely talented freshman Olivia Aleman, still not competing at full tilt after a back injury, took third all-around. Both return next season with the kind of 1-2 punch Deary’s Gymnastics always seems to pack.

An old brick armory in the state’s Quiet Corner may seem like an unlikely place to be the home of one of Connecticut high school’s athletic dynasties, yet here we are in downtown Danielson. On this weekday night, girls of various ages pack Deary’s. Counting all the little ones, Tocchio says about 500 students come through each year.

Deary’s is a remarkable story in the evolution of the sport in Northeast Connecticut. The godmother is Tocchio’s mom, Robin Deary Fillmore.

With no high school gymnastics growing up in Putnam, Robin took part in U.S. Gymnastics Federation events and went on to compete for Southern Connecticut. From a young age, she’d tell anyone who’d listen she was going to own a gymnastics club and coach one day. After she graduated from Southern, Robin did exactly that taking over a small place on Route 6 in Brooklyn.

“She created high school gymnastics in this area, which is awesome,” Tocchio said. “It wasn’t a thing and now we travel around with kids from six different schools, which is so cool to be able to showcase so many different athletes who didn’t get that recognition in high school. Following in her footsteps isn’t bad.”

Deary Fillmore started a team at Killingly in 1986-87 and another one at Woodstock Academy a few years later. With Kerry and Kim Robitaille, Killingly won a state title in 1990. Kasey, state all-around champ as a freshman and junior, and Justine Basley, all-around champ as a senior, led Killingly to three more between 2004 and 2007. Later, Paige Stuyinski and Grace Logan spearheaded the 2014-2017 state powerhouse at Woodstock Academy.

Consider this: Robin coached Killingly to the Class S title and Woodstock to the Class M title in 2012. Could you imagine Lou Marinelli simultaneously coaching New Canaan and Darien to state football titles? There’d be a riot.

Tocchio, a fixture at the family business essentially since birth, took over as head coach in 2015 and, yes, continues to coach both schools in addition to single gymnasts from a handful of others.

“I want to say there are three coaches in the CIAC coaching two schools,” Tocchio said. “Gymnastics is unique like that. It’s not like I’m holding anyone back from their potential. It doesn’t matter if someone knows Taylor’s routine. If they can’t do what she does, it’s not possible … also you can’t play defense in gymnastics.”

Markley, who lives in Brooklyn, started coming to Deary’s when she was 3. There was a gymnast of some note in the family. It was her grandfather Ed Metters, a Green Beret and a firefighter, who died while battling a structure fire in 1981 in Dallas. As a toddler, Taylor was climbing all over things. Perfect for gymnastics.

After finishing her collegiate career at Bowling Green, Tocchio remembers first working with little Taylor when she was 5 or 6. Even then she saw the talent.

“She was one big muscle,” Tocchio said. “She could do presses for days, a kid who you’d show a skill and she’d want to learn more and more.”

Tocchio also followed her mom as coach of the Deary’s Gymnastics USA Gymnastics club team. Some club coaches don’t want to get involved with the high schools or they steer their kids away from it. It’s the opposite here. From the start, Deary Fillmore wanted the gymnasts to have a high school team experience and get recognition from their classmates for the strong athletes they are.

“When it’s competition season, it’s way more known we’re winning,” Markley said. “But in the beginning of the year (at Woodstock Academy), we had an advisory and one of the questions was what team has won 10 straight state titles. Nobody knew the answer.”

Folks certainly should know about the resilience of the CIAC gymnastics queen.

As a freshman, the 5-foot-1 Markley had a fractured back. Woodstock finished second in the State Open. Last year, with no state competitions, she underwent ankle surgery. Her long rehab road back was interrupted when she got COVID in July. Wait. We’re not finished. She had mono and strep throat near the end of the year that kept her out of school for a month and out of training for two. Mono means swollen spleen.

“She was a mess,” Tocchio said.

Markley, a Level 10 gymnast, did participate in the bars in a late December meet, but didn’t compete in all four events until late January. When did her coach sense she was back?

“Her first meet,” Tocchio said. “Taylor’s basic routine is so natural for her. And she’s a kid who loves the drive and competition.”

With meets without their full roster and others returning wounded, Woodstock was seeded second at both the Class M and State Open. Given where the team was in December, Tocchio called a tight victory over Daniel Hand in the State Open, “very special.”

Aleman, who’s from Pomfret, was not cleared for all-around until a week after Markley.

“We’re still trying to be smart with Liv,” Tocchio said. “We’re excited that after this week, we can condition and get her back where she can be. She is capable of a lot more skills than she’s doing. A lot more up her sleeve.”

“I couldn’t wait until Liv became a freshman,” Markley said. “We do USA gymnastics together. We push each other. We’re friends. It’s fun to have someone to talk to all the time. She hasn’t hit her full potential which is crazy.”

The family business means Tocchio is at Deary’s all the time. Club and school practices, she works at Deary’s with the younger kids, too. It is no exaggeration to call Markley a gym rat.

“Most of these girls have been coming since they were 3-4,” Tocchio said. “Having that is so helpful here. Liv was this tiny little thing with hair bigger than her whole body when she first came. She sat on the side with her mom for pretty much a year. She was terrified. When the class was over, she would show the coach what she learned. Eventually she joined in. I remember her being a Level 4 and by the end of the following season (in 2017) a Level 8. She jumped so far so fast.

“Taylor would have been little, but she saw Justin and me. She certainly watched Grace and Paige. She was the little kid in the group and saw those dynamics at work. Now she has that dynamic with Olivia.”

It’s true. They don’t rebuild at the old Danielson Armory. They reload.

[email protected]; @jeffjacobs123