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Rutgers Gymnastics 2020 preview

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Program opens season Saturday in Arizona for second-year coach Umme Salim-Beasley.

FloSports: FloGymnastics Big Ten Championships
The cheers in the RAC for gymnastics are on the rise.
Catalina Fragoso-USA TODAY Sports

The 2020 Rutgers gymnastics season begins Saturday at 4:00 pm EST (2 pm local) in Tucson, Arizona at the McKale Center. Don’t we all wish we were down there to celebrate the New Year and season where the high temperature outside will be a crisp 63 degrees. Hopefully some of you will be in attendance as RU faces off with the host Wildcats, Iowa State, and Western Michigan. 2020 is the second year for the program under Head Coach Umme Salim-Beasley, who returned to Rutgers after a previous stint as an assistant that got her the head job at Temple in between.

What changed since the end of last season?

After the team performance at Penn State in the Big Ten Championships, Belle Huang competed at the NCAA regionals. Huang lost a tiebreaker for a spot at the nationals. She returns, but Jenna Rizkalla, Michelle Amoresano, and Riahanah Ali do not. They will need to be replaced by committee since they all competed in at least three events every time out, usually among the top five scores.

The task falls to Salim-Beasley and her assistant coaches Anastasia Halbig and Michael Rosso in their second year as a trio at RU this time around. In 2019 they were able to achieve a highest team score of 196.050 and average of 193.965 both up from 2018 (194.800 & 193.042 respectively.) Expectations are even higher for 2020.

For the 2019-2020 recruiting class, Jenna Ferguson and Hannah Joyner signed National Letters of Intent prior to the 2019 season opener. They are joined by six other freshmen in the Rutgers Class of 2023: Kaitlyn Bertola, Jordyn Duffield, Lizzy Henshall, Alexis Rogers, Julia Volpe, and Jordyn Zieden-Weber. Perhaps more than any other college sport, freshmen can compete from Day One. All four sophomores on the roster contributed in their rookie campaigns a year ago so we might see something similar.

Gymnastics Basics Recap

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.

Uneven Bars

Salim-Beasley says (per the team’s official website):

“Our bar lineup has the potential to be one of our more consistent events. Five of the six of our routines are returning from last season. We also have some very strong back up routines that are challenging for lineup spots.This has added to the confidence that the team has about this event.”

As noted in the offseason priority list for the program, this was the biggest weakness for RU in 2018, but they improved dramatically in 2019. The coaching staff divides up which events they prioritize with Salim-Beasley herself focused on this one. She saw the group add almost an entire point to their season average year over year; 48.315 compared to 47.375. Salim-Beasley has her work cut out again though because much improvement is needed to build depth here after RU used only eight gymnasts for the six spots all year, and one of the eight only participated in one meet. The freshman class isn’t as decorated in bars, so Salim-Beasley’s player development will surely be tested.

In a microcosm of her career, captain Shannon Farrell (9.750 average with a high of 9.925) who began her career at Arizona, returns for her final season which begins in Tucson. After Farrell, the most reliable returning contributor is fellow captain Kaitlyn Hall who toughed out every meet all season. Hall battled a knee injury the last two years and looks to return to the form she had in early 2018 when she scored a 9.7 or better in three of the four meets on bars. It’s nice to see her not sporting a knee brace in preseason highlights. Though it is by far her worst event of the four, Belle Huang did rise to the occasion with a 9.800 at the Big Five Meet. Salim-Beasley offers a complete meritocracy for playing time based on that week’s practice scores so you can’t surely pencil in these three for certain, but they have done enough in their careers to be counted on in the event.

After the three upperclassmen, Abigail Karolewski (high of 9.800) competed regularly on bars as a freshman last year and was definitely better later in the season. The spots in the rotation normally handled by Ali (9.650 avg before an injury), and Amoresano (9.583 avg) will be up for grabs. Emily Drauss (9.800 career high) came out of nowhere to participate in eight meets in the event with mixed results. Emily did however save some of her best for last recording a solid 9.750 at the Big Ten championships.

Rachel Ley was a regular in the 2018 bars rotation but has moved to a team manager role, so it may come down to sophomore Mia Betancourt getting her first action on bars or senior Erin McLachlan returning to major duty for the first time in the event since 2017. Of the freshmen, Kaitlyn Bertola had the most success in her personal career prior to RU on this apparatus, so she could be very focused on it. Somebody will likely emerge out of nowhere like Drauss did in 2019.

2019 individual best: 9.925 Farrell (3/8/19)

Floor Exercise

Salim-Beasley says:

“Floor should be another show stopping event for us this season. We have added a lot of fun choreography to their routines that will no doubt be crowd pleasing.”

Assistant coach Michael Rosso had a good year in this event, but he might need a better coaching effort to sustain improvement. The team’s average for the season rose by less than one tenth of a point from 48.710 to 48.787 despite losing two of its top three in the event from the 2018 campaign (Libby Groden and Makenzey Shank.) The real good news though was the consistency late in the year as the team put up a 49+ in four of the last six meets. The bad news is that Ali (9.79 average), Rizkalla (high of 9.9), and Amoresano (9.65 average) formed half of the team’s production that is now gone. So practically the entire roster turned over on this apparatus in the last two years.

Junior Belle Huang is the far and away best returnee in this event, averaging an 9.843 for the entire 2019 season. Junior Toni Williams often led things off and did raise her season average from 9.631 as a freshman to 9.656 as a sophomore, though she peaked midseason and dropped off a bit late in the year. The other building blocks include junior Sophia Atienza who had her three best scores in the last three meets of the year, sophomore Mia Betancourt who hit a freshman wall after being sick, and sophomore Sage Littlejohn who was always on the cusp of cracking the lineup. Farrell and Karolewski competed twice and could be in the mix.

Rosso may get a much needed cavalry charge from the newcomers on the floor. Jordyn Duffield was the 2019 level 10 California State Champion in this event. Julia Volpe shined in Texas, which puts her in the mix. Jenna Ferguson has a chance to earn a spot here, also.

2019 individual best: 9.925 Huang (1/19/19)

Balance Beam

Salim-Beasley says:

“Beam is the event where we should see a lot of improvement from last season. The depth that we added was what we recruited hard for. We have 10-15 routines that are very strong that can be added to the lineup at any time.It should be exciting to watch because there can be a lot of potential lineup scenarios on beam this season.”

Rutgers had to replace a ton of production lost after the 2018 season and it took most of 2019 to return the squad to a similar level of production during meets, though the Scarlet Knights still finished with a lower average team score for the season (48.162) than the year prior (48.533). Assistant coach and RU alumnus Anastasia Halbig oversees this event and only loses one full season contributor, Amoresano, so there is hope if development from within.

Huang is less consistent on beam than her other events, but iced the Penn State win with a 9.925 to eliminate any doubt on the nationally televised broadcast. Hall is a regular, although her scores had a low ceiling due to modifications as a result of her injury. More from her would be an immediate upgrade at the top of the lineup. Betancourt’s rookie year ended with a fall at the Big Ten Championships to tarnish an otherwise steady season for a freshman. Fellow classmate Kiera Doherty-Herwitz surprised many by coming out of nowhere and delivering the momentum changing score (9.825) to turn the tide in the PSU win. Another sophomore, Littlejohn, showed improvement in exhibitions and could take a giant leap forward.

With or without Littlejohn’s contributions, there is still at least one competition spot every week for someone not listed above. Hopefully McLachlan can return to her 2018 form when she averaged a 9.772, though she did not see action in 2019. The big get in the recruiting class to shore up this event is Hannah Joyner who should push for a major role right away. Another freshman, Lizzy Henshall has her best chance to get time in this event.

2019 individual best: 9.925 Huang (2/9/19)

Vault

Salim-Beasley says:

“Our vault lineup will be a strong one for us. We are hoping to unveil three new 10.0 start value vaults this season.This should increase our scoring potential tremendously on that event.”

Vault 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 you also have to flip, twist, turn, then stick a landing. Rosso has the lead here also and had the team improve from a 48.423 average in 2018 to 48.702 a year ago. However, Rutgers loses arguably their three best vaulters from a year ago in Amoresano, Ali, and Rizkalla who each were a threat for a 9.9 every time out.

So, now what? Huang averaged a solid 9.735 which was a slight tick below her breakout freshman year. Williams in a full season also dropped from 9.767 to a 9.710, so expect a bounce back. Atienza was a starter in 2018 (9.640 avg), but competed just once last year. Despite her 9.7+ average, Mia Betancourt did not compete on vault in the second half of the year. Hall averaged a 9.712 despite usually landing on just one good leg.

Of the incoming freshmen, Ferguson is best decorated in this event. Duffield has plenty of hardware on this apparatus as well. Alexis Rogers has her best chance to get her feet wet in this event and Jordyn Zieden-Weber probably falls in the same boat. So fans should feel confident there is enough depth here.

2019 individual best: 9.900 Rizkalla (3/2/19)

Coaching strategy

The team seemed to break down physically at the end of the 2018 season, but the new coaching staff did a great job preventing that from happening in 2019 for the most part in a sport filled with injury risk. As gymnastics teams go, they were about as healthy as anyone could expect and that was a huge factor in some late season victories when opponents were not at full strength.

It seems from the outside that this coaching staff knows what they are doing and is bringing in more Level 10 gymnasts than the previous. In fact the eight L10 in this recruiting cycle is tied for the most in the country in this recruiting class with Bridgeport, Southeast Missouri, and possibly UCLA. Hopefully this talent will be enough to arrive as middle of the pack in the Big Ten by late in the year as they were in late 2019. Losing three decorated seniors is a tough ask though, so don’t expect RU to come out firing right out of the gate unless the freshmen are awesome. From what I gather, three of the eight are on at least partial scholarships. More help is coming in 2021 with Avery Balser and Kylie Haffner who signed NLIs and the reported transfer of Carleigh Stillwagon from Western Michigan.

If any freshman will break through in the all-around, it is most likely Joyner, already named a Big Ten “Gymnast to Watch” alongside Huang. Though Salim-Beasley doesn’t seem to feel pressure to always have someone competing in all four events like some coaches, she won’t hold anyone back if she earns it. When Huang and Amoresano did it last year, that came from their achievements in practice.

The Skinny

The Big Ten is TOUGH in gymnastics. Yet this coaching staff without a full recruiting cycle elevated Rutgers to one spot below their previous stop (Temple) per roadtonationals.com in their first year and within striking distance of the Big Ten pack overall. One key data point; in 2018, Rutgers had just three individual routines score a 9.9+ but significantly improved that to 12 routines in 2019. They finished in last place (10th) at the Big Ten Championships, but did have two upset wins over ranked teams along the way including one over Penn State. RU had never beaten the Nittany Lions in regular season action before dating back to before my mom was team captain in the early 80s. The most impactful thing non-current RU fans but those that have ever followed college gymnastics reacted to when I told them over the past year is that Rutgers is competitive with Nebraska and Penn State, both meets came down to the very last routine on the last rotation. And despite the graduations, the team’s best gymnast, Huang, is back for her junior year.

This program’s arrow is pointing up, so hopefully that’s the case for the entire year. Even if there are bumps in the road, the new practice facility will be a huge boon the next few years. I haven’t come across anyone who didn’t trust Salim-Beasley’s skills as a coach, so those two factors alone should elevate Rutgers gymnastics to levels not seen in some time on the banks.

NEXT UP:

After Saturday’s meet, the season continues Saturday January 18 at the RAC for the home opener against Minnesota, Bowling Green, and Ursinus.

Good luck in 2020!