U women’s gymnasts set for regionals

by Michael Dougherty

Southern hospitality will be cast aside this weekend as the 17th-ranked Gophers women’s gymnastics team heads to Tuscaloosa, Ala., for the NCAA Central Regionals.
The meet is expected to draw well over 10,000 people at Coleman Coliseum, and the warmth that folks down there are known for will not extend to the Gophers.
“They’ll attract a huge crowd that will be absolutely berserk for their team [Alabama],” co-head coach Jim Stephenson said.
Yet the sixth-year coach is counting on his squad to overcome the crowd and continue to perform strong.
In particular, Stephenson is relying on his six seniors to provide leadership and support.
“They’re prepared to have a very good competition. Almost half of our team is seniors, so we’re really experienced,” he said. “They are very excited about doing a good job and finishing strong.”
The Gophers are coming off a two-week layoff, after they won the Big Ten championship on March 21. It was their first conference title since 1991.
Stephenson, along with his wife and coaching partner Meg, both consider the Central Region to be the toughest of the five regions in
“The teams we will be competing against, like Alabama and Michigan, have multiple national championships and numerous All-Americans,” Jim Stephenson said. “But I think we have some people that will hold up against them really well.
He is looking for strong performances from Judith Cavazos, Mindy Knaeble and Cathy Keyser. Keyser won the only individual title at the Big Ten meet in Iowa City, Iowa, as she dethroned Knaeble, last year’s balance beam champ.
Knaeble had a mishap and fell, and that opened the door for the steady Keyser to capture the crown.
“Actually, it was a surprise all the way up until they called my name,” Keyser said. “(Knaeble and I) work together every day on the beam and always practice together, but I can’t say we’ve ever had a rivalry.”
Both coaches said they expected Keyser’s performance.
“She just has a presence about her on the balance beam,” Meg Stephenson said. “She just looks real confident. In fact, I don’t think she’s fallen off the beam all year. She’s had some wobbles, but she’s never fallen.”
Despite her mishap on the beam, Knaeble was content to pass the title on to Keyser.
“It was my title last year, but it was up for grabs this year,” Knaeble said.
Keyser, a biology and pre-dentistry major, has dual citizenship in the United States and Australia. Her international background is something that both coaches feel benefits her and the team.
Right now, the team will take any advantages it can get, considering the Gophers will face a field of six other teams, five of which are ranked ahead of them in the national rankings.
Michigan is No. 2, Alabama is No. 5, LSU is No. 8, Iowa State is No. 11 and Michigan State is No. 14. But the Gophers have defeated each of those teams in head-to-head competition this year except LSU.
The winner of the Central Regionals, as well as the other regional champions, automatically qualify for the national meet, which will be held April 16-18 at UCLA.
The seven highest scores of the non-regional winners also qualify for nationals.
Last year, the Gophers had the sixth-highest non-regional winning score, which marked the first time in school history the team made nationals. They finished 10th in that field, and hope to automatically qualify for this year’s meet.
“The news about us beating Michigan in both the regular season and at the Big Tens and having beat Alabama has made people say, OK we’ve heard all of this about Minnesota, now let’s see if it’s for real,'” Jim Stephenson said.