Heading into the Southeast Regional in Morgantown, W. Va., on Thursday, Minnesota’s women’s gymnastics team carries with it the sting of last year’s near-miss at the regionals and a vow not to miss another opportunity.
The Gophers finished third in the Southeast Regional last year and missed the NCAA Championships by just .15 points. Arizona State, who earned the second spot in last year’s Southeast Regional, finished ninth in the NCAA meet last year.
Co-coach Meg Stephenson said the disappointment of last year’s regionals has been the driving force behind the 11th-ranked Gophers’ success this season.
“The athletes were so frustrated with their finish last year,” Stephenson said. “They didn’t want to be a bubble team again. They wanted to be at the level of a top-12 team.”
The Gophers travel to Morgantown, seeded second in the region this year behind Alabama, and they must perform to that seed to qualify for the national championships, hosted by the Crimson Tide on April 19th-21st.
Senior MaryAnne Kelley said being seeded second is positive for the Gophers, because it allows them to approach the meet with a different mentality.
“Every year I’ve been here, we’ve been seeded third, and we went in thinking we had to beat a better team to go (to the NCAA Championships),” she said. “This is a new situation for us, but I definitely like the position we’re in.”
Minnesota will be heavily favored to advance, considering the region does not have another team ranked in the top 15 nationally. An average performance from the Gophers should be enough to qualify them for the national championships.
But co-coach Jim Stephenson thinks Minnesota has the ability beat Alabama and win the meet.
“Our plan is to win that meet,” he said. “We know on paper, we perform more difficult gymnastics than they do, and we execute equally well. It should be a great contest.”
In the individual competition, Kelley has a strong chance to qualify for the NCAA Championships in the all-around. She finished fourth in the all-around at the Big Ten Championships and was named Big Ten Gymnast of the Year.
Kelley and sophomore Annie Laatsch are Minnesota’s best bets to qualify for individual events at the national championships. Laatsch won the conference championship on the uneven bars and tied the school record with a 9.95.
Kelley could qualify in several events, most likely the floor exercise and the balance beam. She was an all-conference selection on the floor exercise after scoring a 9.875 at the Big Ten Championships.
After its surprising fourth-place finish at the Big Ten Championships two weeks ago, Minnesota’s men’s gymnastics team will head to Thursday’s NCAA qualifying meet in Norman, Okla., trying to compete in Friday’s national championships for the first time since 1993.
The fifth-ranked Gophers, who finished less than six-tenths of a point out of second in a conference featuring six of the nation’s top eight teams, must finish third or better in Thursday’s qualifier to advance.
And in a region featuring Big Ten and defending national champion Ohio State as well as Big Ten runner-up Michigan and seventh-ranked Iowa, Minnesota’s task won’t be easy.
“If we don’t at least make it to Friday night, it will be a failure,” head coach Fred Roethlisberger said. “We’ve got to beat one of the Big Ten teams. We think we can be the top team in (the qualifier), but we have to perform at a higher level than at Big Tens.”
For the Gophers to qualify for Friday’s national championships, they must avoid the mistakes they have made all season. Minnesota fixed many of its problems on parallel bars and high bar at the Big Ten meet, but miscues on floor exercise and pommel horse – its two best events – cost the team a chance to win.
“We’re the best team in the country on horse, and there’s no reason we shouldn’t be scoring in the (37-point range) there,” said junior Clay Strother, the defending national champion on pommel horse and floor exercise.
Minnesota has not put together a strong meet on all six events at any time this season, which proved to be the Gophers’ downfall at the Big Ten Championships ñ despite a season-high team score. They are capable of beating anyone in the country on pommel horse, floor exercise, and vault, but have major shortcomings on high bar, parallel bars and still rings.
At the Big Ten Championships, the hosting Gophers watched Ohio State, a team without a standout event but also without any weaknesses, dominate a meet filled with missed opportunities and mistakes. Strother said if the Gophers perform up to their ability on their best events while cleaning up their mistakes, they have a chance to beat the Buckeyes.
“It’s very possible we could beat Ohio State,” he said. “We can score in the 217 range if we clean up our mistakes. We really haven’t had a great meet, but we’re barely behind the Big Ten teams.”
Roethlisberger echoed Strother’s sentiments, saying Minnesota “had the most room for improvement of any Big Ten team,” and adding his team could even win a NCAA title with a stellar performance.
“We put too much pressure on ourselves at the end of the Big Ten meet,” he said. “If we stay within ourselves and avoid mistakes, I really feel like we have a chance. Ohio State and Oklahoma are leading the pack, but we have to think we have a chance to win.”
Ben Goessling welcomes comments at [email protected]