The 2019 Rutgers gymnastics season begins Friday night at 7:00 pm in Cancun, Mexico at the Grand Coral Ballroom. Don’t we all wish we were down there to celebrate the New Year, hopefully some of you are. 2019 truly is a new chapter for the program as Umme Salim-Beasley replaced Louis Levine on May 11, 2018 as head coach.
The season opening quad meet features conference foe Michigan (who took home the Big Ten title in Piscataway in 2017), the Iowa State Cyclones, and West Virginia who just so happens to be Salim-Beasley’s alma mater.
What changed since the end of last season?
After the team performance in Illinois at the Big Ten Championships, two Rutgers gymnasts competed at the NCAA regionals, Libby Groden and Mackenzey Shank. Groden, Shank, and Jenna Crisalli ended their illustrious careers and will need to be replaced by committee.
The task falls to Salim-Beasley who returns to a Rutgers program where she served as an assistant from 2012-2015. Salim-Beasley had success as Temple’s head coach for three seasons before Athletic Director Pat Hobbs hired her to help rebuild a Rutgers program that hasn’t yet found it’s footing in the ultra-competitive Big Ten.
Two freshmen signed with the program under the previous coaching staff and elected to enroll despite the leadership changes, Mia Betancourt and Abigail Karolewski. Betancourt joined RU from Berks Catholic High School in Reading, Pennsylvania. Karolewski hails from nearby Hillsborough, New Jersey. The duo are also joined by two other true freshmen on the roster, Sage Littlejohn and Kiera Doherty-Herwitz. For the 2019-2020 class, Jenna Ferguson and Hannah Joyner have already signed National Letters of Intent.
Heading into the new season, three captains were named by the staff: Jenna Rizkalla, Michelle Amoresano, and Riahanah Ali. Salim-Beasley in her discussion with Lance on our podcast indicated why she chose the three seniors as well as a lot of other insight regarding the program.
Gymnastics for beginners
To help us add more followers of the Rutgers gymnastics program, we’ll do our best to review some of the basics of the sport over the course of the season so it’s easier to follow along.
Women’s collegiate gymnastics is identical to the olympic level in that athletes compete on four events: vault, uneven bars, balance beam and floor exercise. In a quad meet, each team will begin on a different apparatus and select six participants to compete. Once all six gymnasts have completed their routine in that event, the teams will rotate to a different apparatus. The meet ends after each team has completed all four events. In each event, the top five individual scores count toward the team’s total score. The winning team has the highest total score across all four events. Personal accolades are given per individual apparatus and athletes who participate in all four events can earn all-around recognition.
As noted in the offseason priority list for the program, Rutgers MUST improve on the uneven bars. The coaching staff divides up which events they prioritize on and Salim-Beasley herself is focused on this one after doing so at RU in 2014 while also having scored a perfect 10.0 competing for West Virginia in her college career.
Junior Shannon Farrell from Atlantic Highlands, NJ participated in every meet and led the team with a 9.733 average. Amoresano steadily improved over the course of the season, tallying the highest individual score with a 9.800. Belle Huang was a hyped freshman, but struggled on bars after she began competing in all four events. Huang should be more consistent as a sophomore. Juniors Kaitlyn Hall, Emma Karas, and Rachel Ley all participated in the event in 2018 with Hall being the strongest performer, though she only competed in four meets. Senior Eriel Santagado participated only once, but posted a solid 9.725 so she could push for more opportunity as well. Karolewski may be the front runner to quickly ascend in this event, though opportunity exists for others to surprise, particularly under Salim-Beasley’s tutelage.
2018 individual best: 9.800 Amoresano (2/11/18), Groden (1/13/18)
Assistant coach Michael Rosso rejoins the program after being a student assistant. His first job is to try and maintain the Scarlet Knights’ success from 2018 as the team averaged a 48.710 on the floor, their best collective event.
Jenna Rizkalla led the team on floor exercise in as well as posted the top individual score of the season with a 9.900, so she will be counted on again to lead the group. Huang returns as the team’s best overall gymnast and the floor is her best individual event. Riahanah Ali was a substitute early in the year, but finished strong with a 9.825 at the Big Five Meet and a 9.800 at the Big Ten Championships. Hannah Prieto was a floor specialist as a freshman in 2018, competing in seven meets and should be a regular again. Toni Williams had a roller coaster freshman campaign in the event compared to how steady she was in her other event (the vault) and should be more consistent herself. The favorite for the sixth spot is Shannon Farrell who competed 12 times on floor, though it is the weakest of her three events. It’s wide open though, perhaps vault specialist Sophia Atienza branches into the event? This could be Betancourt’s primary focus as well. Rosso has his work cut out to ensure the group has contingency plans if one of the top five were to go down as floor is an event where minor injuries often force a revolving door for a lot of teams.
2018 individual best: 9.900 Rizkalla (1/27/18)
Rutgers loses the most production on this apparatus as Groden and Shank were particularly strong on the event. Assistant coach Anastasia Halbig was a four-year letterwinner at RU and will be tasked with improving the team on the beam. The cupboard is not bare as despite Groden missing time due to injury, the Scarlet Knights had beam as their 2nd best team apparatus.
Junior Erin McLachlan specialized on the balance beam and led the team in average scoring which was a surprise considering Shank’s tremendous finish. Farrell and Hall are steady and Huang was absolutely awesome out of the gate in the event before possibly hitting a freshman wall. After those four, someone needs to be identified as the expected 5th score. Amoresano was a regular participant even though beam was the weakest event of the three she competes in while Rizkalla and Polina Poliakova filled in emergency duty. We might see someone make their debut in the lineup tonight, perhaps freshman Sage Littlejohn or sophomore Emily Drauss, both from Florida. If Rutgers can solidify the back end of the group, they should be fine on balance beam, but if not it could be rough. The range of possibilities here on both extremes is the most of any event for Rutgers in 2019.
2018 individual best: 9.875 Shank (2/11/18)
Vault is the black sheep of the four events. It truly is the hardest event in women’s gymnastics and possibly in any sport. It passes by as fast as a track and field sprint but is complicated by the flipping, twisting, then trying to stick a landing.
Rosso doubles as the lead coach on this event as well and has a good starting point with Williams and Huang. Both starred in the event as freshmen alongside specialist Sophia Atienza. Chloe DeVries did not compete in 2018, but was the team’s most consistent in the event during 2017. After that Emma Karas, Ali, Hall, Amoresano and Rizkalla all will probably get another crack at regular time in the event. Rosso could really use someone else to really step up here even if it’s out of nowhere like Kiera Doherty-Herwitz, but vault is always tough and at minimum Rutgers has several athletes who have experience.
2018 individual best: 9.875 Huang (2/11/18)
The team scores were hurt late in the 2018 season by injuries, but more than any sport other than maybe football, injuries are a huge part of it. If you aren’t pushing yourself it decreases the risk of injury, but also decreases the possibilities of improvement. By the end of the season, everybody is banged up.
Coming into the season trying to incorporate as many participants as possible made sense last year and probably does this year, so it will be interesting to see how the line-up gets set tonight and moving forward. With the new staff in town, expect Huang to be the only gymnast who competes in the all-around barring one of the freshman exploding onto the scene. The seniors will be looked to for leadership, but don’t expect the staff to try to over-extend them despite their experience in several different events. Rutgers needs to build some energy and excitement around the program which will be easier to do with more gymnasts getting opportunities. This staff has at least three years before they are pressured to squeeze out points to keep their jobs.
Let’s face it, Rutgers is in the toughest gymnastics conference in America as eight teams qualified for the regionals. As a result, a poor conference record does not necessarily mean a bad season. That being said, the Scarlet Knights need to figure out how to move up the conference ladder while getting superior talent to defeat local foes. Salim-Beasley seems like the right person for the job and the first glimpse of actual competition has finally arrived.
The season continues Saturday January 12 in Bridgeport, Connecticut with another quad meet where Rutgers will be the only school traveling from out of state.
Good luck in 2019!