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Rutgers Gymnastics: Reviewing Coach Salim-Beasley’s first year objectives

Seniors will be missed, but program on positive trajectory.

FloSports: FloGymnastics Big Ten Championships
The RAC saw some good moments on the other mats in 2019, too.
Catalina Fragoso-USA TODAY Sports

The Rutgers gymnastics team completed their schedule and we handed out OTB awards about a month ago along with some hot take thoughts on the season.

To continue our off-season coverage of the gymnastics program, today we’ll review our top priorities for Coach Umme Salim-Beasley when she took the job just over one year ago and how the program is trending in each.

Uneven bars - TRENDING UP

Salim-Beasley had personal success in this event and this is the one event she focuses on with the team. The team average jumped from 47.375 in 2018 to 48.315 in 2019 despite graduating both Libby Groden and Makenzey Shank from the normal lineup. What’s even more encouraging is that the squad only loses Michelle Amoresano (graduation) from the group that competed at the Big Five Meet and Big Ten Championships. This objective can be viewed only as a success by all measures including the score at the Big Ten Championship itself, up to 48.625 from 48.200.

Vault - TRENDED UP, 2020 TBD.

The vault is the hardest event in women’s gymnastics, but Salim-Beasley’s staff seemed to figure it out at Temple. They brought the same to the Scarlet Knights in their first season back on the banks. We expected Rutgers to try to specialize athletes in this event as Coach Levine tried to do in 2018, but it turned out Coach Michael Rosso did not do that and amazingly there was not a single meet where a gymnast competed ONLY on the vault. Per Coach Salim-Beasley’s comments when we spoke prior to the Nebraska meet, vault was a complete meritocracy just like the other events. Like bars, the team average score increased substantially from 48.423 in 2018 to 48.702 in 2019. At the Big Ten championships, the margin was much narrower with only a slight uptick (48.550 to 48.575).

Rosso really has his work cutout in 2020 though because three of the team’s top scorers all graduate; Amoresano, Jenna Rizkalla, and Riahanah Ali. Rizkalla particularly had the ability to get a 9.900 every time out, while Amoresano and Ali were super consistent. The cupboard is not totally bare, bounceback years from Toni Williams and Sophia Atienza could serve as the easiest path. We will cover the projected lineup in more detail in a future post.

Recruiting - Too Early To Tell

Replacing Makenzey Shank and Libby Groden was a very tall task. Groden was an all-around competitor all four years, while Shank starred on beam and was a regular in three events. Naturally you don’t expect freshmen or transfers to plug right in, but gymnastics is a sport where freshmen often arrive ready to go. The scholarship limit is 12 in the sport, but it’s unclear how they are being utilized right now. Also of note is that gymnastics is a sport where scholarships can be split, so for example a school could have ten athletes considered “full” and four more on “half.”

Mia Betancourt and Abigail Karolewski joined the program even though they had signed with the previous coaching staff. Sage Littlejohn and Kiera Doherty Herwitz also joined the program, so the staff gets credit at minimum for ensuring all ended up at Rutgers despite the coaching change. All four made contributions.

Rutgers has two gymnasts signed for 2020, Jenna Ferguson and Hannah Joyner, and expect at least two more walk-ons as RU graduated four seniors. Ferguson comes from Wellsville, PA and is most consistent on floor exercise. She also posts some high scores on vault, but has been inconsistent at Level 10. (For more explanation on the skills required at each level, here’s a good reference.)

Joyner arrived from Waldorf, MD, south of Washington, DC and participated at the Junior Olympic National Championships in Houston last week. For some perspective, Hannah finished better overall in 2019 than Belle Huang did in the 2017 event, though Huang did win her division on the balance beam. So Joyner’s definitely a big-time recruit. Her best events are definitely beam and bars so she could be ready to join those lineups right away.

The one area Coach Salim-Beasley can hopefully build on is getting more in-state talent. It’s hard to come up with a scientific measure of how good each state is, but here’s some excellent data points from three years ago that show the Garden State is well represented. I think Rutgers will get more New Jerseyans over time, in fact Salim-Beasley did have six gymnasts from NJ on the roster her final year at Temple. This is not as important as other sports because the talent pool is smaller and revolves around specific gyms that themselves often have athletes from out of state. That being said, the best comparison in another sport is probably wrestling and we have seen now that RU is big-time in that sport, they are preventing Jersey’s best from going elsewhere.

The new practice facility at the RWJBarnabas Health Athletic Performance Center should also help with recruiting.

Enthusiasm - TRENDING UP

First off, give the previous coaching staff under Lou Levine credit for driving pretty good attendance even when the team struggled, winning just two official Big Ten meets in the first four years in the conference. The meets at Livingston were sold out at least 12 consecutive times and the Big Five meet in 2018 drew over 3,000 to the RAC. The 2019 figures improved over the course of the season with three meets at the RAC to just one at Livingston. The Penn State win was just a dual meet yet had over 2,000 people in the stands and the excitement was visible even on BTN. The new coaching staff didn’t make crazy improvements in this area, but they did move the needle in a positive way.

Finding a steadily improving energy was illustrated in competition quite well in 2019. Rutgers stumbled out of the gates, but improved steadily over the course of the season with a few minor setbacks along the way. The 10th place finish at the Big Ten championships was a disappointment, but earlier in the year RU beat 7th place Ohio State on the road and 5th place Penn State; both top 25 teams at the time. That equalled the total number of Big Ten wins in 2019 compared to the previous four years COMBINED. That was also the main reason you could see opposing teams and the BTN crew giving RU more respect on their broadcasts.

As mentioned on Lance and Aaron’s year-end review podcast, Salim-Beasley fits the mold that Athletic Director Patrick Hobbs is finding success with hiring; younger coaches who can relate to players and already built something at a middle tier program, especially locally. More than anything Salim-Beasley needed to show everyone associated with the program that the team is on the rise and feed off the overall Rutgers new regime momentum, which she did. Getting to the middle of the Big Ten standings is tough in every sport and only ten of the fourteen schools have gymnastics, most of which are historical powerhouses, but Salim-Beasley has shown enough in just her first year at the helm to instill confidence she can bring the team there sooner than later.