Slechta qualifies for NCAA tourney, Gophers miss by slim margin

The women took 4th but were .225 points from qualifying.

Josh Katzenstein

Freshman gymnast Kayla Slechta set a pretty high bar this weekend.

And it wasnâÄôt one on which she had to perform during this weekendâÄôs NCAA regional meet.

After four strong performances, including two top-10 finishes, Slechta ended the meet in fourth place in all-around to advance to the NCAA championships in two weeks.

âÄúIt definitely puts a little bit more pressure on me [for the future], but I like the challenge,âÄù she said. âÄúHopefully next year weâÄôre making it as a team.âÄù

Minnesota finished tied for fourth with No. 4 Stanford at the regional meet. Needing to finish in the top two of six teams to advance to nationals, the Gophers fell short by just .225 points.

âÄúI really feel like the Gophers should celebrate the year,âÄù coach Meg Stephenson said. âÄúItâÄôs been a few years since weâÄôve been able to say, âÄòWe just missed it.âÄôâÄù

Slechta, meanwhile, didnâÄôt miss much Saturday, but the meet didnâÄôt start how she planned. Minnesota started on uneven bars, and Slechta landed a 9.65.

âÄúOn bars I felt like I couldâÄôve done a lot better,âÄù she said. âÄúI didnâÄôt let that get me down, and I just thought about going in there and hitting and picking up for the bars on my other three events.âÄù

She set a career best on the next event with a 9.8 on balance beam. SlechtaâÄôs standing improved again when she scored a 9.875 to finish in a tie for sixth on floor exercise. Her 9.8 on the vault was good enough to tie for 10th at the meet.

With the meetâÄôs top three all-around performers advancing with their teams (Michigan and Kent State), Slechta and Iowa StateâÄôs Michelle Shealy will move on.

SlechtaâÄôs performance is another example of her continued improvement this season. The freshman came to Minnesota after tearing two ligaments in her right ankle at the start of her senior year at Shakopee High School. Making a comeback proved to be most difficult on the floor, her favorite event, but Stephenson said the coaches made routines that put less pressure on her ankle.

âÄúShe came in and really did have an ankle injury, so we kind of steered away from some of the skills she was doing that were aggravating it,âÄù Stephenson said, adding that front landings would be easier on the ankle than back landings. âÄúSheâÄôs so talented that she really does have a good skill repertoire to choose from.âÄù

But as is always the case, the Gophers wanted to make nationals as a team âÄî a feat they havenâÄôt accomplished since 2002. The teamâÄôs three competing seniors (the fourth senior, Yuri Nagai, hurt her foot at UCLA) performed well in their last shot at nationals. Kendra Elm and Kristin Furukawa had MinnesotaâÄôs high scores on bars, and Ana Balboa contributed scores on beam and floor.

âÄúI think one of the exciting things was that they all hit all of their routines,âÄù Stephenson said.

Slechta said she saw mixed emotions from the seniors after she advanced to nationals. Her advancing certainly lifted their spirits, she said.

âÄúIt definitely shows everyone out there that MinnesotaâÄôs a good team,âÄù Slechta said. The Gophers moved up from No. 23 to No. 21 nationally after the meet.