Women’s gymnastics eager for return to national spotlight

Ben Goessling

Despite joining teammate MaryAnne Kelley as a first-team All-American on floor exercise and finishing 12th in the event at the NCAA Championships in Tuscaloosa, Ala., Annie Laatsch’s mind couldn’t have been further from her own success Sunday.

Instead, Minnesota’s sophomore thought about the epiphany she experienced Saturday night.

“It was just overwhelming being out there with the best of the best,” she said. “When I watched the individual (event finals), everything was perfect. Now I’m coming back and I want to learn all these new skills. It was definitely a wake-up call.”

The rest of Laatsch’s team, which posted the best finish in school history by placing ninth, shared her sentiments about the weekend. The Gophers were so overcome with enthusiasm after watching Friday night’s team finals that they spent part of Saturday making a list of team goals for next season.

“Now that they’ve been to the NCAA Championships, it’s a lot easier for them to be motivated,” co-coach Meg Stephenson said of her team. “They wanted to come in to the gym on Monday already, and we actually had to force them to take a few days off.”

Minnesota will now attempt to channel the emotions from its first trip to the national championships in five years toward achieving what it failed to do this weekend: make the team finals for the first time in school history.

The Gophers scored a 195.7 and missed an appearance in the Super Six by just .35 points, posting low scores on vault and uneven bars en route to a fourth-place finish. The top three teams advanced to the Super Six.

Kelley finished ninth on floor exercise and was also named a second-team All-American in the all-around, but she and Laatsch were the only Minnesota gymnasts to advance to the individual finals.

Co-coach Jim Stephenson said Minnesota had to “pay its dues” in terms of establishing the credibility with judges enjoyed by the nation’s top programs, but blamed the fourth-place finish in the preliminaries largely on its early mistakes.

“We under-performed on vault and bars, and it was hard to recover after that,” he said. “Overall, it was an average performance for us. But we have to get to the point where we can have an average performance and make the Super Six.”

Kelley, who qualified individually for the national championships last year, told her teammates all season about how motivating the championships were for her, and Thursday night, Laatsch experienced the same revelation.

“MaryAnne came back and worked so hard after the national championships last year, and now I know why,” she said. “You watch all the other girls, and you come away so inspired.”

ï Assistant coach Doug Day was named National Assistant Coach of the Year on Saturday.

Ben Goessling welcomes comments at [email protected]