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2020 Rutgers Gymnastics Season Review

Uneven campaign ended due to global health crisis.

Joyner flew onto the scene as a true freshman in 2020.
Rutgers Athletics

It’s been a little over a month since the Rutgers Gymnastics team competed in what ended up being their final meet of the season in New Hampshire on March 8. The subsequent Senior Night meet and festivities scheduled for March 13 did not take place. The Scarlet Knights would not take to the mats again at all because all NCAA sports were cancelled for the remainder of the semester. As a result, the winter season did not finish with conference, NCAA regionals, or nationals as students were sent home, but we got enough gymnastics to at least be happy the 2020 campaign happened.

Let’s recap key takeaways from the squad’s season focusing on some highlights:

Team MVP

All-around: Belle Huang and Hannah Joyner (tie). Huang is a repeat winner and actually improved her season average in all four events compared to 2019, but this was too close to call. Joyner did average a 39.184 in the all-around compared to 38.850 for Huang, but Hannah’s best scores were on beam which Rutgers was very strong on across the board. Whichever way you go on this one, you aren’t wrong as these were the two best athletes on the team, both competing in the all-around in every single meet.

Individual event: Shannon Farrell, uneven bars. Shannon’s 9.802 average on bars (up from 9.750 in 2019) was not the highest average on a single apparatus for any gymnast, but the senior co-captain gets this recognition because bars was by far the squad’s worst event in 2020. Every time out, Shannon needed to put up a high score to carry the team with no room for error. She only scored less than 9.750 one time (a paltry 9.625, sense the sarcasm?)

Best Newcomer

Individual event: Joyner, balance beam. Would like to have found someone else, but Joyner topped 9.900 seven times as a true freshman. We all look forward to what she can accomplish in the future.

Honorable Mention: Jenna Ferguson. The other gymnast who signed her LOI on the same day as Joyner, Ferguson began the season in meets on beam only. She finally got into the vault lineup on March 8 and registered a 9.713 season average (six meets). Jenna struggled in her first floor routine at the Big Five Meet, but was a catalyst in the team’s hot streak with a 9.850, 9.800, and 9.700 to close out the year. If she can be a stalwart in three events for three more years, Rutgers should have a dynamic duo on their hands in the 2023 class.

Most improved gymnasts

Individual event: Emily Drauss, bars. Drauss was thrust into the lineup in 2019 probably a little too early, but had double the number of 9.7+ scores in 2020 (six) to what she had in 2019 (three), including a career-high 9.825.

In-season: Sage Littlejohn, beam. The sophomore did so many exhibitions as a freshman in 2019 across several events you couldn’t even count. In 2020, she finally cracked the regular rotation on balance beam for the final three meets, averaging a 9.742.

Comeback gymnast of the year

Erin McLachlan. This is a no brainer. The senior did not compete at all in 2019 but returned better than ever to anchor the balance beam rotation and tie a school record in the process with a 9.950 in Philadelphia. Her season average on beam was a 9.806, pretty impressive!

Cheryl Landells Ms. Consistent Awards

Toni Williams and Kaitlyn Hall. This award is primarily for vault this year as Williams scored a 9.700 or better in every meet the entire season. Also as a tiebreaker, she only had one major deduction in her seven appearances on floor exercise. The senior co-captain Hall for her part only upped her vault average from 9.712 to 9.802, while recording just one major deduction on bars.

Best Win

Team Overall: #15 Auburn (03/08). This was actually a quad meet that also included victories over host New Hampshire and Central Michigan, but knocking off the ranked Tigers was the big prize that punctuated the season in every way. The 195.900 was the highest road score ever for the program just when they needed it. Unfortunately they have to wait until 2021 as the win turned out to be the final meet of the year.

Team and Individual (Single Event): Balance Beam at Penn (01/26). McLachlan propelled the squad to their second-highest team score on beam (49.125) in a road meet ever when she posted a school record 9.950 in the event. Rutgers was on the beam in the final rotation to ice the victory, much needed after struggling less than 48 hours earlier at #9 Michigan.

Toughest Loss

Team: @ Penn State (01/31). The Nittany Lions sat at #30 in the country for most of the year which is below their usual standard, but are always tough especially at home. Rutgers had knocked them off in 2019 for the first time in school history at the RAC though, and hoped to do it again. The 2020 battle took place in Happy Valley and both teams were on their A game. Despite a 195.700 score, Rutgers fell short of back to back wins over their historical nemesis. Penn State was so on fire they dropped a 9.800 on bars as their lowest score. Rutgers did win vault and beam, but not by enough.

Individual: Several Big Five meet performances (02/21). Rutgers limped into the Big Five meet in Toledo, Ohio, but the adrenaline always flows in this meet that features five Big Ten squads. On beam, true freshman Hannah Joyner finished in second place with a 9.900, behind only Ohio State freshman Ella Hodges’s 9.925, the first of what could become the Big Ten’s best head to head matchup the next few years. On bars, Shannon Farrell tallied a 9.850, but a 9.875 was needed to tie for third place. Vault was a similar story for Toni Williams and Kaitlyn Hall who both registered a 9.875, but a 9.900 was needed to reach the podium in a second place tie. First place on vault was won by 2018 National Champion Taylor Houchin of Nebraska.

Overall feelings & thoughts on this season

Rutgers’s season looked like a cosine wave. After a strong start that had them on the cusp of the top 30 in the country, the Scarlet Knights struggled to tread water for a while. Rutgers did eventually rebound by reducing the sub-par scores which goes a long way in team scoring. Officially, Rutgers was last in the Big Ten (actually 10 teams in gymnastics) despite a Net Qualifying Score of 195.085 which still put them within striking distance of a postseason berth and NCAA Regionals appearance pending the outcome of the final two meets. If every opponent was treated as a head to head matchup, RU was 9-13 overall in 2020 including two wins over ranked opponents.

With the last national rankings update on March 9, Rutgers sat at #44 in the country. Though that is slightly improved from #47 in the 2019 final rankings, the Knights had hoped for more in Coach Umme Salim-Beasley’s second season leading the program. Had Rutgers been able to stay hot and build on their three straight weeks of 195+ team scores, they could have surprised many with the momentum heading into the postseason.

Fair expectations for next season

.500 overall record and two Big Ten wins.

The Scarlet Knights certainly lose seniors Shannon Farrell and Kaitlyn Hall who each regularly competed in two events, plus star McLachlan on beam. For college athletics in any sport, having to replace roughly 21% of the team’s production (five of the 24 scored routines) due to graduation is par for the course at worst. Next year’s senior class is also on the smaller side, four gymnasts (Atienza, Drauss, Huang, & Williams) who combined competed in eight routines on average, so a lot will be riding on the improvement of the underclassmen and potential contributions from true freshmen. The Big Ten is one of the top three gymnastics conferences in the country by every metric, so the target should be an even overall record and a postseason berth.

Thank you again to the seven seniors who are moving on: Shannon Farrell, Kaitlyn Hall, Erin McLachlan, Chloe DeVries, Emma Karas, Rachel Ley, and Polina Poliakova.

Next up

The recruiting dead period was announced to end on April 15, but we shall see if that gets extended. The 2021 recruiting class already includes signed letters of intent from Avery Balser, Kylie Haffner, and Emily Leese. Additional gymnasts are expected and we will provide those updates later in the off-season.

Otherwise, a big unknown as it pertains to practice and competition. We hope to be back to normal on the mats sooner than later and see everyone next season as the calendar flips to 2021.

Special thanks to the Rutgers gymnastics team for trying to help parents out with their bedtime story tweets! Check out this one from sophomore Kiera Doherty-Herwitz as she reads “Shaggy Dog and the Terrible Itch” by David Bedford.

Please be safe and good luck to everyone during these trying times.