Women’s gymnastics team earns surprise conference title

Michael Dougherty

Over spring break, the headlines were filled with Cinderella stories, from the NCAA men’s basketball tournament to the Academy Awards.
But the Gophers women’s gymnastics team had a glass-slippered gal of their own in fifth year senior Lacey Purkat.
She took second place on the balance beam at the Big Ten championships on March 21 in Iowa City, Iowa. Teammate Cathy Keyser won the event, leading the 17th-ranked Gophers to their first Big Ten title since 1991.
With a score of 195.4, the second highest in team history, the Gophers dethroned Michigan, ending the Wolverines’ string of Big Ten titles at six.
But it was Purkat who stole the spotlight. She was taken off the balance beam routine in early March because of numerous sub-par performances. But with some hard work in practice over the next couple of weeks, Purkat regained her spot in the lineup.
“While it was wonderful for Cathy to win the title, it was really wonderful for Lacey because she struggled early in the year and she had to come through when it really counted for the team,” co-head coach Meg Stephenson said.
Keyser’s title was the only one for the Gophers, but there were several other outstanding performances.
Sophomore Judith Cavazos recorded a school record on the uneven bars with a 9.95. Senior Molly Umland set a personal record with a 9.9, and the team total of 49.25 set a school record. Michigan’s Nikki Peters scored a perfect 10 to capture the title.
Stephenson was particularly proud of Umland’s personal best. She is part of the six-member senior squad that has provided influential leadership all season.
“It was so special for them. Our seniors are the second recruiting class for Jim and I, and they have worked so hard in the last four years to get to this point,” Stephenson said. “It was great to see them get rewarded for all of their hard work.”
Jim Stephenson is Meg’s husband and coaching partner. He’s in his sixth year as head coach, and she’s wrapping up her first after serving as an assistant the past five years.
The two shared Big Ten Coach of the Year honors. Jim Stephenson won the award last year when his Gophers squad took second place.
Senior Mindy Knaeble was the only other Gopher to place, finishing third on the floor exercise with a 9.85. She was the Big Ten champion on the balance beam last year.
As expected, the Stephensons were brimming with happiness.
“We are so happy for the University and appreciate all that they have done for our program,” Meg Stephenson said.
“This is a huge success for the University of Minnesota,” Jim Stephenson said. “More than anything else, I’m happy for the women on the team. We know how hard they’ve worked and for how long. We hoped they would achieve this.”
A few hundred Gopher fans made the trip to Iowa City, and continued to provide their boisterous support.
“I was standing on the floor during the meet, and someone from Iowa came up to me and said `You know, I think you have more fans here than we do,’ and it was true,” Meg Stephenson said.
Along with the Coach of the Year award, the Gophers placed four women on the All-Big Ten Conference team — Cavazos, Keyser, Purkat, and Knaeble.

Gophers qualify for regionals
The team qualified for the NCAA Central Regionals, which will be held on April 4, in Tuscaloosa, Ala.
The Gophers are part of a seven team field consisting of Michigan, Alabama, Louisiana State, Iowa State, Michigan State and Illinois.
Minnesota has defeated every team in head-to-head competition this year except LSU. The Gophers hold the sixth-highest qualifying score of the field.

Sibling rivalry
Knaeble’s younger sister Bridget is a freshman for Michigan. She took the title on the floor exercise and tied for third on the vault and the uneven bars. She was also named to the All-Conference team.