The Rutgers Gymnastics team began their season in Cancun with a big quad meet test against Michigan, West Virginia, and Iowa State. The “Umme era” began (or continued depending on how you look at it) with a strong start to the first meet of 2019 and a strong finish to bookend a tumultuous two middle rotations. Here’s how it went down:
Rutgers began the evening in the vault. The out of nowhere surprise was true freshman Mia Betancourt leading off in her collegiate debut and registering a 9.7 followed by senior captain Michelle Amoresano (9.6) and Belle Huang (9.725). Toni Williams registered the team’s high score with an impressive 9.8 and Riahanah Ali a 9.75 (her best score since 2016 in the event). Kaitlyn Hall added a 9.675 to close it out.
Credit to Coach Rosso for having the team ready to go right out of the gate, channeling the adrenaline of the season opener and putting pressure on the other teams. Most impressive is that specialist Sophia Atienza was not in the official lineup, but did do an exhibition vault (more on that below). A very solid start to the season in this event and Rutgers was actually in the lead after the first rotation.
Rutgers rotated to the uneven bars, the area where the team needs the most improvement in 2019. As the staff elected to do in the first event, they gave a true freshman her debut to lead things off. This time it was Abigail Karolewski who one-upped her classmate, registering a 9.75 to begin her college career. Rachel Ley did not have a clean routine putting pressure on the rest of the group. In their section action of the day, Hall tallied a 9.4 and Amoresano finished strong to salvage an 8.75. Last year’s top scorer Shannon Farrell was not her best with a 9.3 to anchor the group.
Coach Salim-Beasley’s forte had mixed results. The bad news is that only one gymnast (Karolewski) was probably pleased with her score, but the good news is that the returnees did add complexity to their routines which adds to their ceilings if perfected. Just one meet into the season, taking a step backward with an eye on the future will probably turn out to be the right move.
Rutgers looked to regain momentum on the balance beam, the program’s most consistent event the last few seasons, but things went horribly wrong. Mia Betancourt led the group off solidly for the second time in the meet with a 9.675, but Riahanah Ali had a fall and settled for a 9.025. Kaitlyn Hall in her third event of the day wasn’t perfect, but flashed some new moves for a 9.575. The pendulum swung back the other way again as Keira Doherty-Herwitz in her collegiate debut, Jenna Rizkalla, and Belle Huang all fell.
We warned of high risk, high-reward in the preview on the balance beam. Assistant coach Anastasia Halbig has to be disappointed because falls on beam can result in serious injury and it may be difficult to make full evaluations. Much like a basketball coach can’t be blamed if his/her team is just missing open shots, Halbig is not the reason 2⁄3 of the group fell. This one will just have to be chalked up as a mulligan. That being said Shannon Farrell and Erin McLachlan did not compete, so there could be help on the way. Farrell did do the bars, but McLachlan did not participate in any events. If she is injured, it’s a huge loss on beam.
The Scarlet Knights finished the evening on the floor exercise. Mia Betancourt led things off for the third time in the meet and again was steady at 9.675. Sophia Atienza (9.6 in her college debut in the event) and Toni Williams (9.575) were bested by Riahanah Ali’s solid 9.725. Belle Huang regrouped nicely with an awesome 9.85 and Jenna Rizkalla registered a 9.5.
Rosso again looked like a genius, pushing all the right buttons on the floor as well. With Rizkalla going last and the team event seemingly out of reach there is no need to panic with her score after pacing the club in the event during 2018. Hannah Prieto did not even compete so she should be available in reserve as well. The team seems to be in pretty good shape on floor yet again.
The only Rutgers gymnast to compete in the all-around was Belle Huang, though Betancourt could join her sooner than later. On that note, everyone has to be happy with the performances of Betancourt and Karolewski. Gymnastics is a sport where you can usually tell early on if rookies have stardom in their future and there were promising signs.
#9 Michigan and West Virginia are two very strong programs so losing to them in the season opener is no shame. Iowa State actually finished above WVU with RU in a distant 4th. That said, Salim-Beasley in her interviews preaches that it’s not about who you line up against, but how you handle your own business. She also indicated the team’s number one improvement in the last 8 months was their confidence which has to be shaken somewhat for a few members of the team who struggled. Opening season jitters in gymnastics can result in a lot more physical pain than other NCAA sports. There is opportunity to scale back new routines if that is eventually required or make some personnel changes, so no need to panic after one performance. At first glance, no one on the roster registered a career best in the meet so there is more reason to believe improvement is possible across the board.
Gymnastics for beginners
After the six gymnasts officially competing for each apparatus have completed their routines, teams have the ability to send an extra gymnast to perform an exhibition routine. Note the exhibition score will and cannot be included in the team’s aggregate total, even if it turns out to be a perfect 10. This opportunity can be used in a variety of ways including a low pressure way for athletes to make their collegiate debuts, specialists attempting more difficult routines to try them out with an eye toward future meets, and versatile team members who want to prove they can be all-around contributors. Friday’s exhibitions included Sophia Atienza (9.375) in vault, Sage Littlejohn on both bars and beam.
The season continues Saturday January 12 in Bridgeport, Connecticut with another quad meet where Rutgers will battle Bridgeport, Yale, and Southern Connecticut.