PISCATAWAY, N.J. (Jan. 8, 2014) – Coming off a record-breaking season, Rutgers gymnastics looks to continue its ascent in 2014. Recording four of the top six team scores in school history last year, including a 195.975 mark on Senior Day, the Scarlet Knights are primed to take the next step with a wealth of depth in all four events.
"Last year we proved to ourselves that we could be that good,” said third-year head coach Louis Levine. “In the last five years, we have had this huge rise in what we have been able to do. This year we are going in knowing we are that good, which is half the battle.”
Even though Rutgers sent four individuals to the NCAA Regionals, the Scarlet Knights narrowly missed qualifying as a team after sitting on the bubble down the stretch with a 194.740 RQS (regional qualifying score). That has proven to be the goal through the offseason.
“We’ve talked about hitting the ground running this season and not waiting until the end to push for NCAA Regionals,” Levine said. “If we put up the scores we are capable of from the start, everything will take care of itself.”
The 2014 schedule features four home meets at the Livingston Recreation Center and seven away contests that lead up to the East Atlantic Gymnastics League Championships March 22. The year begins Jan. 11 with New Hampshire at home before the squad travels to Ohio for two meets in three days at Kent State and Ohio State.
“We start off right away with three tough meets that are quickly going to let us know where we are,” Levine said. “Our goal is to qualify for NCAAs as a team and we want to be able to put up high scores from the beginning.”
With capacity crowds filling the Livingston Recreation Center in recent years, the Scarlet Knights look to continue their success at home.
“Every home meet is a great experience for the kids and gives them a chance to show off for the fans,” Levine said. “There have been some big crowds over the years at the Livingston Gym and we look forward to seeing great environments once again this season.”
Mixing 14 letterwinners with four freshmen, the Scarlet Knights will be led by their three captains this season – redshirt senior Jenna Zito (Rockaway, N.J.), senior Alexis Gunzelman (Tabernacle, N.J.) and redshirt junior Luisa Leal (Cali, Colombia). All three have earned individual bids to the NCAA Regionals during their careers.
“These three are probably the most experienced competitors on our team,” Levine said. “They’ve been through the ups and downs so we really thought they were a good representation of what we want to be. The three girls have strengths that allow them to come together to be an amazing set of leaders.”
A two-time NCAA qualifier, Gunzelman was named EAGL First Team All-Uneven Bars in the 2013 season. Throughout her junior year, she set several personal career records, including a 9.825 on vault and a 9.850 on the uneven bars, while serving as a captain.
Returning as the EAGL Team MVP and nearly qualifying for the NCAA Nationals, Leal was named EAGL First Team All-Vault for the second straight year. Leal recorded a school record 39.500 all-around score during a meet at Towson.
Zito returns as a captain once again after competing in only two meets last year due to injury. The redshirt senior was named to the National Association of Collegiate Gymnastics Coaches for Women Academic All-America team, recording a 9.825 in both floor exercise appearances in the 2013 season. She went to the NCAAs in 2011.
Rutgers added four freshmen to its roster that are pushing immediately for spots in the lineup – April Baker (Andover, Mass.), Claire Jones (Gaffney, S.C.), Taylor Le Moal (Yorktown, Va.) and Charly Santagado (Celebration, Fla.). All bring extensive gymnastics experience to the table, having competed at the regional and national level.
“The newcomers have all acclimated themselves well to the collegiate level throughout the fall semester,” Levine said. “They all will be in contention to see time right away.”
After winning the Most Improved Award for her hard work last season, sophomore Aziza Day (Snellville, Ga.) looks to make her meet debut in 2014.
With the anticipated amount of depth across the board, Levine will have options when he fills out his lineup each week. Gunzelman and Leal both competed all-around in the final six regular season meets before doing the same that the NCAA Regionals. Senior Alyssa Straub (Nazareth, Pa.) also went all-around in three meets in 2013.
“I anticipate Luisa and Alexis going all-around, but there are definitely others who could as well,” Levine said. “The conditioning of the team is great and it is about finding the right group for each event. Depth in all events will only continue to raise the level of competition to make the lineup.”
The Scarlet Knights re-wrote the record book on the vault in 2013, recording the top three scores in school history on the way to a 48.845 RQS. Both Leal and sophomore Jenna Williams (Bordentown, N.J.) earned EAGL First Team All-Vault to help set those mark. Leal also set the program record with a 9.925 routine last year.
“We’ve added the most depth at vault,” Levine said. “There could be some freshmen in the lineup here and it is great to have Jenna Zito back. Being nine to 10 deep, everyone will be pushing each other every week.”
Straub proved to be effective once again on vault, scoring a 9.875 in the event to spark the lineup. Sophomores Danielle Verdon (Freehold, N.J.) and Nicolette Wilson (Toms River, N.J.) saw extensive action last season in the event as rookies and look to continue to make an impact, while junior Sara Skammer (Dallas, Pa.) competed on vault 10 times.
Rutgers managed to raise its bars RQS to a 48.775 last season, with both Williams and Gunzelman returning as EAGL First Team All-Uneven Bars honorees. Williams earned EAGL Rookie of the Week two times in 2013.
“Bars have always been a make or break event for us. Last year it was our most improved and we have the skills to put up huge scores there this season. Everyone has been pushing hard to refine their routine.”
After missing her freshman season, junior Emma Hoffman (Union, N.J.) returned last year to post over a 9.6 eight times. Senior Alexandria Ivol (Woolwich Twp., N.J.) brings back experience to the event and had a career-high 9.725 as a junior.
Sophomore Claudia Salinas (Allendale, N.J.) emerged last season as a contender on the balance beam, earning EAGL First Team All-Balance Beam last season. She qualified for the NCAA Regionals and scored at least a 9.7 six different times in the event. The team went as high as 48.850 – third-best in school history – on the way to helping set the team mark.
“Beam is about perfecting the little things in the routine,” Levine said. “We have some strong performers, but they need to show confidence and focus in what they are doing. The depth we have is very capable of big scores, but they need to bring that into the meet and showoff to the judges.”
Junior Anastasia Halbig (Schwenksville, Pa.) returns after missing time due to injury last year, but posted a 9.715 RQS in 11 meets in beam as a freshman.
The floor exercise has statistically been the strength of Rutgers over the years, with this season restocking the lineup after losing two regular contributors. The team scored a program-record 49.250 last season to highlight 2013. In addition, Leal scored a career-best 9.950 at Towson, as one judge deemed her routine to be a perfect 10.
“This year is a new beginning in floor, having lost some seniors from the lineup,” Levine said. “We have the ability to keep up the high scores here, having some depth. The routines are there to keep up the strong reputation of the past in this event.”
Verdon and classmate Katie Stebick (Waterford, Pa.) were both solid contributors on floor exercise last year, as the two saw regular action to help bump up the score.
Building off an historical 2013 season, Rutgers carried the momentum through the offseason to put itself in position to build off that in 2014. With a mixture of experience and youth, the depth in each event will push each gymnast to improve to stay in the lineup. A fast start will be key to working towards a team bid the NCAA Regionals.
“We’re in a good place right now,” Levine said. “The team has worked really hard to get into great shape for season. We just have to put some finishing touches on the routines and we’ll be ready to go.
“Our goal this year is to get better as the season moves on, while performing at a high level right from the start. We believe we can stay in the 194 to 196 range.”