It’s been less than two weeks since the season ended for the Rutgers gymnastics when Belle Huang finished competing at the Athens Regional. Though this is only a round table of one, the same questions answered for other sports are a good starting point to take stock of the 2019 campaign, the first under Head Coach Umme Salim-Beasley’s coaching staff.
All-around: Belle Huang. As the only regional qualifier on the team, Huang advanced farther than anyone else on the squad. She was an all-around participant in every meet all season, relied upon for a good score (vault, bars) or elite score (floor, beam) each time. Her improvement on floor was incredible from a 9.750 average in 2018 to a 9.843 average in 2018, culminating in the regional qualification. She has two more years left and could set more records before her time on the banks is done.
Individual event: Shannon Farrell, uneven bars. Shannon’s season plateaued late and her performance in the Big Ten Championships was just at her season average of 9.750, but for the middle stretch of the season she was a threat to win the event every time she did a routine. She had two 9.9+ on the year and by my count achieved more first place finishes in any one event than anyone else on the squad. Most importantly by anchoring what began as the team’s weakest group, the stability allowed them to improve and be competitive in the event as a team by season’s end.
All-around: Mia Betancourt. Betancourt began the season as a key member of three rotations (vault, beam, and floor). She was sick at one point and didn’t compete on vault after that really which was a shame considering in her first collegiate action was averaging above a 9.7 over six meets. By season’s end she was only competing on beam though the team will be counting on her to be a regular in multiple events the rest of her career. Her 9.775 on floor against Penn State was one of the nails in the coffin.
Individual event: Kiera Dohery-Herwitz, balance beam. Though she was inconsistent at times, freshman Doherty-Herwitz was a major reason the team pulled some upset wins late in the season. Kiera competed on beam in every meet all year and her 9.825 was when many watching on TV and in the crowd realized Rutgers might be able to beat PSU for the first time in a regular season meet. Kiera didn’t participate even once in any other events, but has three more years to do so.
Most improved gymnasts
All-around: Michelle Amoresano. Amoresano competed on beam throughout 2018, but was in and out of the lineup on bars and vault, never once competing on floor. In 2019 after the very first meet, she competed in all four events every meet the rest of the way. Not only did she compete, but she won several all-arounds, often finishing 1-2 with Belle Huang. Amazing improvement in all areas was incredible to watch for the senior who finally put it all together.
Individual event: Riahanah Ali, floor exercise. Riahanah Ali also deserves consideration for MVP as the team’s heartbeat and you could see a change in the team when she did not participate due to injury. Ali only competed in eight events total in 2018 (four vault and four in floor), but became a regular on bars for the first half of 2019, sprinkling in some beam as well. Though Amoresano may have improved by raw totals more, the fact that Riahanah went from a 9.725 average in four meets to a 9.790 in 12 tries is much tougher when nearing that upper limit. Her tumbling was effortless at times, putting the crowd at ease.
In-season: Abigail Karolewski, uneven bars. Of all the freshmen, Abi had the highest average score in a single event while being in the lineup virtually the entire year. Add to that the fact that bars was the team’s kryptonite early in the season and it was absolutely critical a freshman emerge there. Karolewski did compete on floor twice, though it was her step up late in the season (first half 9.530 average, second half 9.665) that was a microcosm of the team’s improvement.
Cheryl Landells Toughness Award
Kaitlyn Hall. Hall battled injuries in 2018 and even in 2019, but persevered with the help of a knee brace. In my interview before the Nebraska meet with Coach Salim-Beasley, she mentioned that limiting Kait’s workload in practice was key to keeping her healthy deep into the season. After only 11 events in 2018, Hall competed in all 13 meets on three apparatus in 2019. Not only did she participate, Hall was a top three season scorer on the team in all three of her events. How she was able to hold up in vault with some modified landings was amazing to watch. Here’s to even better health in 2020.
Team: #25 Penn State. Beating Penn State is always a little extra special, but with this being the first time RU did so in a regular season meet it was epic. Rutgers did not have a single fall or stumble as scores above 9.7 were being thrown out left and right because the other five were even higher. It didn’t hurt this was broadcast on the Big Ten Network for a national audience to see, either. Coach Salim-Beasley’s first upset of a top 25 team would have been memorable regardless, but it doesn’t get any better than this.
Individual: Jenna Rizkalla, vault AND floor exercise. The most electric member of the team when at her best, she won two events in a single meet along with a second place finish in her third. In New Hampshire, without Riahanah Ali, the rest of the squad had their most disappointing effort during the second half of the season despite being almost single-handedly carried by Rizkalla. Jenna achieved a 9.900 on vault and floor, winning both events, while throwing in a career high on beam while she was at it. She was truly a standout that week.
THIS IS JERSEY Riz grabs a 9.9‼️ pic.twitter.com/Xi1VobVEMT— Rutgers Gymnastics (@RUGymnastics) March 3, 2019
Team: #5 Nebraska. The Cornhuskers entered the meet at Livingston Gym ranked 5th in the USA Gymnastics rankings at the time, and at worst 15th in another poll. Rutgers was unconscious for a stretch where six consecutive career-bests brought them neck and neck with the Big Ten powerhouse. Coach Salim-Beasley and her squad almost toppled a giant in just her THIRD MEET at the helm. On the plus side, it showed that this coaching staff was doing something very, very right.
Individual: Belle Huang at the NCAA Regionals. This was recently covered, but doesn’t sting any less. Achieving a 9.900 in a field featuring the best gymnasts in the East was enough to qualify for the national championships, if you could win the tiebreaker. Unfortunately Belle did not and her season ended on a happy note, tying the school record for regional competition.
Overall feelings & thoughts on this season
Excitement built throughout the season. It was a rocky start that had some accepting the Scarlet Knights may have needed to bottom out in 2019, but Rutgers began to turn a corner even in a narrow loss to Nebraska. After a setback at Iowa, the team seemed to bond together after the series of delays during their travel to and from the Hawkeye state. After that they narrowly lost to Maryland before defeating Penn State at the RAC. From there it was generally upward trending with another win over a ranked opponent in Ohio State. The performance at the Big Ten Championships was not the team’s best, but there’s plenty of reason for hope in the intermediate and long term on the banks.
Fair expectations for next season
.500 overall record. Meaning if every opponent was treated as a head to head matchup, Rutgers wins half of those contests. Gymnastics is a grueling sport, so it’s too early to expect the Scarlet Knights to reach four or five wins within the Big Ten, America’s second or third best conference. Rutgers graduates three seniors who participated in at least three events on a regular basis and since only the top five scores on each apparatus count, this is somewhere in the range of 40-50% of the team’s official scoring production. Without major depth across the board, even a minor injury to a multi-event gymnast could derail the team’s 2020 campaign record. This coaching staff proved successful during their first stint at RU and previous stop at Temple, so hopefully they really show their abilities in building on their first year even with the departures due to graduation.
Thank you again to the four seniors gymnasts and team manager who are moving on: Jenna Rizkalla, Riahanah Ali, Michelle Amoresano, Eriel Santagado, and Allison Palmer.
Final exams will be here before you know it! Keep an eye out for periodic offseason updates here at onthebanks.com.