Women’s gymnasts are moving on up

Susan Filkins

The Gophers women’s gymnastics team set several goals before the start of the season — setting a school-record team score was a major one. Minnesota did that last weekend, scoring 195 against No. 3 Utah.
Their score may only be a number, but to the Gophers it means much more.
“When you hit a 195, it’s like you are one of the big teams that distinguishes between the good teams and the great teams,” senior co-captain Kristen Vandersall said.
The number also helps establish the reputation Gophers coach Jim Stephenson set out to achieve when he came to Minnesota four years ago. The reputation being one that presents a strong program enticing future recruits.
Getting some of the nation’s top recruits is one thing Stephenson has been working on since he became head coach. It is a quality women’s athletics director Chris Voelz looked for when hiring a gymnastics coach.
“We wanted to make sure we got someone who would succeed and define himself with the elite,” Voelz said. “We were fortunate in getting (Stephenson) and the great staff that he has.”
Recruiting is probably the main reason for the Gophers’ success this year. Minnesota is comprised entirely of gymnasts Stephenson recruited since he has been here. He said obtaining the right talent is the key to building a strong program.
“Recruiting is finding the right individuals who are enthusiastic, talented and really coachable,” Stephenson said. “I think if you stock your gym with athletes like that, it is pretty easy to see improvements with your team.”
Improvements indeed. Minnesota has broken individual records as well as team records. Last weekend against Utah, freshman Judith Cavazos broke the all-around school record, which was previously established by former Gopher Marie Roethlisberger in 1990 and matched last year by junior Mindy Knaeble.
Minnesota has also beaten, and come close to beating, some of the top teams in the nation. It nearly defeated No. 16 Utah State and came within .5 points of defeating Utah. They have clinched wins over No. 29 Iowa State in Ames, Iowa, and against No. 17 Arizona at home.
The breakthrough for the Gophers began with the win over Arizona. Their victory shook Arizona coach Jim Gault enough to draw a dissenting quote from him, which was printed in the Arizona Daily Star following the meet. The quote hangs on the Gophers’ bulletin board in Peik Gym.
It reads: “We choked. A team like Minnesota, I’m sorry but they shouldn’t beat us.”
The comment from Gault disgusted the Gophers. Stephenson and his team hung it in their practice gym as a reminder of what they will continue to dispel.
This weekend will present another opportunity when they face No. 20 Massachusetts (5-3) Saturday night in Amherst, Mass.
“This is only the beginning for us,” junior Lacey Purkat said. “We finally have our confidence and are starting to click. We are on a high, and it is going to keep getting higher.”