Women’s gymnasts head to NCAA meet

Ben Goessling

At 6 p.m. Thursday, Minnesota’s women’s gymnastics team will stride into Alabama’s Coleman Coliseum to compete in the NCAA Championships.

The Gophers will stand among the powerhouses of their sport and acknowledge the reception reserved only for the nation’s best.

At that moment, four years of frustration, heartbreak and tears will finally be erased.

Minnesota qualified for the national championships for just the second time in school history on April 6 – the first since 1997. That year, the Gophers finished 10th nationally and set a level of unprecedented success for the program to build on.

Since then, however, Minnesota has left the NCAA regional championships empty-handed every year, missing the national meet by a mere .15 points last season.

With the sting of last year’s near-miss in the back of their minds, Minnesota fashioned one of the best seasons in school history in 2002, holding a top-12 national ranking all year and rising as high as fifth in January. The return to the national championships brought accomplishment to a season which, according to senior MaryAnne Kelley, has been all about a mission.

“If we hadn’t made it (as a team), we would have always had an incomplete feeling,” the 2002 Big Ten Gymnast of the Year said. “It is such an honor to be there with the top teams, and just qualifying rounds out the season perfectly.”

Kelley and senior Megan Bueckens, the only two Gophers with national championship experience, will lead their team into a new world this weekend. The team will compete in front of over 10,000 fans, or more than five times what Minnesota averages for a home meet at the Sports Pavilion.

The traditionally dominant gymnastics programs – Alabama, Georgia and Utah – typically draw between 8,000 and 12,000 fans for a home meet. On March 23, Utah performed in front of a NCAA-high crowd of 14,285 for a meet against Brigham Young.

The Gophers did compete at Utah this season, but are largely inexperienced in front of such major audiences.

Kelley, however, isn’t worried.

“I don’t think you can be a good gymnast without naturally being a showoff,” Kelley said. “I don’t know one of my teammates that doesn’t love going out and performing in front of (that many) people, so we can definitely use it to our advantage.”

Kelley was enthusiastic when talking about competing in front of large numbers of people, but the smile on her face grew even larger when talking about not having to compete alone.

“I was honored to be at the (national championships) last year, but it was so hard not having my team there,” she said. “I had to stretch by myself, warm up by myself and sit in the hotel room alone at night. To be able to share the experience with my teammates will make it so much better.”

Minnesota’s success this season immediately draws a parallel between the 2002 and 1997 teams and casts the current team as one of the best two in Gopher history.

However, co-coach Meg Stephenson thinks this team is the best Minnesota has ever seen.

“The biggest common factor between the two teams is the attitude,” she said. “The drive to get (to the NCAA Championships) is what set the two teams apart from the rest.

“But talent-wise, I think this team is much better than the 1997 team.”

To establish themselves as the best Gopher gymnastics team ever, Minnesota would have to top the 10th place finish posted by the 1997 team. Minnesota comes into the NCAA Championships ranked 11th in the country and finished with the nation’s eighth-highest score in the regional meet.

Meg Stephenson said their draw in Thursday’s national preliminaries gives the Gophers a good chance to make Friday’s Super Six. However, Minnesota is ranked fifth in the evening session, meaning it will need to beat two higher-ranked teams to qualify for Friday’s finals.

But in the end, whether the Gophers beat their long odds and qualify for the Super Six, or even top the finish of the 1997 team is insignificant.

It’s enough they already beat their demons.