Each season, the Golden Gopher women’s gymnastics coaches have high expectations, and each season their charges work toward the goals of winning the Big Ten title and earning a trip to the NCAA Championships. Yet this season is different. The goals haven’t changed, and the expectations are just as high, but there’s a new excitement in the program. The coaches feel that some previous weaknesses have been erased, and with the exceptional team chemistry and dedication to achieving the team’s goals, the success of this year’s team is eminent.
“We have got incredible chemistry going with this group of women,” explained co-head coach Meg Stephenson. “We also have an incredible level of commitment from each of them. They are driven everyday to be their best and to make things happen. They’re very competitive, but at the same time, they’re supportive of each other. They want to push others on the team, and they want to be pushed. It’s just a great situation to be in.”
The gymnasts worked hard in the offseason, and the result will certainly show once the Gophers hit the competition floor come January. Each gymnast has increased her scoring potential, by adding new skills to her routines, or by refining last year’s routines to make them closer to perfect.
“There’s a culture of commitment with our program, that of course exists in the gym, but extends beyond that, to lifestyle choices, goals, and strategies,” said co-head coach Jim Stephenson. “This group is 100 percent on board with what we’re working toward.”
“A lot of the great team chemistry started last year, because we had great leadership last season,” said Meg. “That has carried over at another level because of the strong senior leadership this year. Everyone really bought into things last year. Our sophomore class, who were freshmen last year, came back so prepared. We’ve been really pleased with how that class is doing, and they are a big part of why we feel so confident about the upcoming season. They were one of the top classes we’ve ever recruited, and then they came back even better as sophomores. That kind of commitment is what has improved the program.”
The Gophers finished the 2008 season on a high note, earning a national ranking of No. 16 after a third-place showing at the NCAA Regional Championship, which was held at Minnesota’s home arena, the Sports Pavilion. Carmelina Carabajal, this year’s team captain, advanced to the NCAA Championship as an individual all around competitor. Carabajal, along with Minnesota’s other all around competitors from 2008 in Angela Walker and Alexis Russell, return to lead the Gophers in 2009.
Because the coaches sense that the team is on the cusp of a breakthrough on the national level, they aren’t shy about expressing their sky-high expectations for the team in the coming season. “We’re absolutely expecting to be competing in Lincoln., Neb., in April,” claimed Jim. Meg added, “for years, we have felt that we’re better than where we rank, and with our No. 16 national finish last year, I think we’ve proven that. We were ranked in the 20’s all year, and then we got out on the floor with top teams, and we proved that we’re in the top 20. We certainly believe this year that we’ll be able to make an even greater statement on the national scene.”
Minnesota’s coaching duo is expressing excitement about vault that has not been seen in the past, and this excitement is for several reasons. “Two things are happening, there’s been improvement in execution and amplitude of vaults, and then we have some people who are upgrading to more difficult vaults,” said Jim. “Ana Balboa and Kristin Furukawa both have upgraded vaults, and Kendra Elm, who didn’t vault last year, is training that event. Yuri Nagai is doing a completely different vault this year. Carmelina Carabajal, Alexis Russell, Jade Beattie and Angela Walker, who were all already doing 10.0 vaults, are doing bigger and better vaults this year. With those gymnasts who were already doing 10.0 vaults, we’re striving to make their vaults bigger and better every time they do them, so that our vaulting performances are very consistent.”
“Jamie Bullock is doing very well on vault in practice right now, and if we’re able to have her in our lineup, she could be the big score we need, added Meg. “Jamie is as gifted as any gymnast we’ve ever worked with, but she’s struggled with durability,” said Jim. “If we can have her in our lineup, she’s a huge addition to our team.”
Senior Carmelina Carabajal was Minnesota’s top vault performer in 2008, earning nine scores of 9.8 or better and leading the team in average vault score. Junior Alexis Russell was also a standout last season, and earned the team’s best vault score with a 9.85. Jade Beattie, a senior in 2009, had the team’s second-best average score on vault, and earned two scores of 9.8. Sophomore Jamie Bullock, while limited because of a foot injury, was a top vault competitor in the four meets she was able to be in the line up, and earned a career-best score of 9.825.
Two of the team’s freshmen are strong competitors on this event, and are contenders for a spot in the vault line up. “Lucy Ennis is a powerful vaulter, and she does a front type vault, which is nice to see since that’s not too popular anymore,” said Jim. “Kylie Smith does a full-twisting Yurchenko, which is a 10.0 value vault. Adding those freshmen into the mix has really helped us.”
While vault has often been the event that most concerned the Stephensons in past seasons, they feel that vault is one of their strengths heading into the 2009 campaign. Only one vaulter was lost to graduation after last season, so the core strength of the vaulting team returns.
“For 16 years, we’ve really had a difficult time putting a vaulting team on the floor that can compete with the top teams in the country. We’ve had some great vaulters, but we’ve never had a whole squad of them,” explained Jim. “This year is the first time that we’re looking at the probability of having a nationally-competitive vault squad, and we’re not just talking about the top six. We’re looking at having several gymnasts on the bench ready to back us up on vault at any time, and we’ve never been in that situation before. We’ve always given up about five-tenths on vault just in start value, so even before the competition begins, we were digging ourselves out of a hole. We’re no longer in that situation, and that is particularly encouraging.”
“We just have more people to choose from than we’ve ever had,” added Meg, “and they’re all working really hard to get a spot in the line up when competition season starts. We only lost one vaulter from last year’s line up in Ashley Mutchler, so there’s been a lot of internal competition to be in the top six on that event.”
Minnesota’s bars team returns intact for the upcoming season. While bars may have been a concern heading into last season, especially with three freshmen in the line up, it is viewed as a strength looking toward the 2009 campaign.
“We have every bars competitor from last season returning, so it will be tough to break into the bars line up,” said Meg. “We also brought in a very good bars performer in Lucy Ennis. We’re very deep on that event, and we haven’t had that luxury in the past. When you have that deep bench, the competitiveness within the team is greater, and that pushes everyone to get better. We don’t have openings on bars from last year’s line up, but we have so much ambition to get in there, and that has fueled improvement on that event.”
“Right now, we have the strongest, most consistent bars team we’ve ever had,” added Jim. “We’ve had great people on bars in the past, but we’ve never had the kind of depth that we have with this year’s team. With the offseason improvements that all the returning athletes made, and the addition of the freshman class, bars is going to be the toughest line up to make.”
Every gymnast in the line up last season earned at least one score of 9.825 or better. Carmelina Carabajal and Kristin Furukawa tied for the team’s best score of the 2008 season with scores of 9.875. Carabajal was the most consistent bars performer last season, earning the team’s top average score. As in seasons past, Angela Walker anchored the bars line up and was a top scorer for the Gophers.
The Gopher coaches took a risk in 2008, and competed with three freshmen in the line up in Kendra Elm, Kristin Furukawa and Yuri Nagai. The risk paid off, as all three were strong and consistent competitors. Each of the three finished the 2008 season with average scores above 9.625, and all have entered their sophomore year with improved routines.
“All 10 of the returning gymnasts who compete on bars are at a higher level than they were a year ago. Even the athletes who were our top scorers last season are better now than they were last year,” explained Meg. “Carmelina has cleaned up her routine very well. Angela and Jade are doing bigger and better performances this year.”
“People aren’t going to recognize Alexis Russell on bars, she has been doing phenomenal in practice,” said Jim. “Kristin, Kendra and Yuri all competed for us last year as freshmen, and they have improved during the offseason. Yuri and Kristin both have some new skills. Julie Kinal is absolutely competitive on bars, as is Ana Balboa. That sophomore class is thick with great bar workers. People will be impressed with our bars team, we’re really impressed with them.”
For several seasons, Minnesota called upon 2008 seniors Amanda Miles, Ashley Stanton and Ashley Mutchler to lead the way on balance beam. After their graduation, the beam team looks very different heading into 2009. However, beam is still a strength for the Gophers according to the coaches.
“On balance beam, we lost three big guns to graduation,” noted Meg. “Amanda, Ashley and Ashley were three great beam competitors. The good news is that we had several gymnasts waiting in the wings last season who are ready to get up there and compete.”
All was not lost to graduation, as several of the team’s top beam workers return for 2009. Carmelina Carabajal was the team’s top scorer last season, earning 11 scores of 9.800 or better, including the team’s best beam score of the 2008 season with a 9.925. Angela Walker has also been a top competitor on beam throughout her career. Walker earned five scores of 9.8 or better last season, including her season-high mark of 9.875. Both Carabajal and Walker averaged over 9.725 on beam during the season.
“Our returning strongholds on beam are Carmelina Carabajal, Angela Walker, Alexis Russell, and Jamie Bullock, all who competed for us during the 2008 season,” said Meg. “Jade Beattie didn’t compete on beam last year, but she’s doing very well in practice. Then there’s the sophomore class, none of who competed last season with the exception of Ana Balboa, but they are all much improved. Ana is very solid on beam, she is looking great. Kristin Furukawa is much improved on beam. Kendra Elm and Julie Kinal are doing well. All three freshmen work beam, and have impressive skills. Again, we have a deep bench on beam.”
Consistency is the name of the game on beam, and even though the returning athletes on beam don’t have new routines, they are more confident and more consistent. “We’re always going to go with the sure thing on beam, so those gymnasts who show us the most consistency will earn the six spots in the line up,” explained Meg. “Beam is a mental event, and consistency builds confidence. If a gymnast is consistent in the gym, she is a viable competitor. That’s true of all the events, but there is much less margin for error on balance beam, so the consistency expectation in practice on beam is huge for us. We’re going to have a lot of great choices on that event.”
Traditionally, floor exercise has been a strong event for Minnesota, and although the coaches are tentative about making that claim in regards to the 2009 season, the Gophers should field a highly-competitive floor team once again.
As with the balance beam, top competitors Carmelina Carabajal and Angela Walker return to anchor the Gophers. Carabajal had the team’s best average score on floor, and tallied 10 scores of 9.8 or higher last season. She earned the team’s highest floor score in 2008 with a 9.875. Walker had six scores at 9.8 or better, including a 9.85, her career-best score.
Senior Jade Beattie competed on floor in nine meets last season, and has upgraded her tumbling in the offseason. Junior Alexis Russell was also a regular competitor on floor last season, and scored a career-high 9.825 last winter. Kendra Elm competed in all but one meet last season as a freshman, and returns with an altered routine including new tumbling and new dance elements this season.
“Floor, which is normally our strongest event, is not necessarily our strongest event this year. The reason I say that is that we’re much improved on the other events,” explained Meg.
“We’ve been coaching together for 28 years, and no matter what environment we’ve been in, at clubs or universities, floor has always been our strongest event,” added Jim. “We’re not there yet, but we’ll come around. We’re starting to see more people look qualified to make the line up. We’re being hard on ourselves because we set high expectations on floor.”
An element of the floor exercise competition that Minnesota’s coaching team has always felt comfortable with is the choreography and high level of dance skills that their athletes possess. “We would always put our choreography and music up against anybody in the country,” claimed Meg. “We feel strongly about how important it is to be a quality, classic dancer. Our style on floor reflects artistic gymnastics in its truest form, and we think that’s an area where we really excel.” Jim elaborated, saying, “Our selection of athletes come from clubs where credence is given to the importance of a dance background. That is something we look for in the athletes we recruit, that they have some dance training, and some of them, like Jade Beattie and Briana Jones, have a very high level of dance training, and it shows in their performances in all events.”