Gymnastics. Yes, it's time for me to write about another of Maryland's under the radar sports. And while the gymnastics squad hasn't yet reached the heights of field hockey, women's lacrosse, or men's soccer, it is clearly a program on the rise.
In 2010 Bob Nelligan, Maryland's head coach of 31 years, turned the program over to his son Brett. In the senior Nelligan's final season, the Terps made their first appearance in the NCAA Tournament following a four year absence finishing sixth in the six team regional. Maryland has returned to the regional tourney each year under the younger Coach Nelligan finishing fourth last season for their highest placement in a decade.
Before I move on to a preview of the upcoming season, let me provide a brief description of how gymnasts advance in the NCAA Tournament. Like wrestling or golf, gymnastics is essentially an individual sport that competes under a team sport cloak. In women's gymnastics, the athletes compete in any or all of four events - the vault, the beam, the bars, and floor. (Gymnastics uses the term apparatus to describe each of these and I will use event and apparatus interchangeably.)
In the NCAA Tournament, teams and individuals advance as follows: The top two teams, as well as the top two all-around competitors not from an advancing team, at each regional receive a berth in the NCAA Championships, In addition, individual event winners who did not already qualify with their team or as an all-arounder will advance. At the national championships, the top three teams from each of the first day's sessions advance to the Super Six Team Finals. The top eight finishers individually in each event earn All-American honors. The current Terrapin squad has two returning All-Americans - senior Katy Dodds on vault and junior Stephanie Giameo on beam.
I recently met with Coach Nelligan to talk about the upcoming season.
TC: The team is ranked twenty-fourth going into the season and it's the first time in about a decade that the team has had a preseason rank. Do you see that as a motivation or a challenge for the team?
BN: The ranking stuff is just fun. It's fun to see the girls receive some recognition for all their hard work. Really what matters to us is getting in there in the head to head competitions, the wins and losses, and the scoring. That's really what we care about.
TC: Is the scoring influenced by the rankings?
BN: I'll put it this way: I prefer to go into a meet ranked higher than the opponent. I think you give yourself an edge in the judge's mind and maybe in the opponent's mind, too. If you come in and you're in the top twenty-five and they're not, maybe they're a little intimidated by you. If it helps us, I'm happy to use it.
TC: The program was in fairly good shape when you took over. You've made five straigh NCAA Tournaments but you haven't made it out of the first round. Is that the goal for this season to take that next step?
BN: Absolutely. That's everybody's goal - to make the second round. Only twelve teams make it. And that's the direction we're headed. I think each year we've gotten closer and closer. It's going to be exciting.
TC: Last year was your best finish taking fourth in the regional. So let's talk a little about that and what you're bringing back from last year's team.
BN: Doing that well at the regional, even though we didn't advance, I feel like it set us up for this year. And we've shown progress each of the last four years. The first year we made it but we didn't do great. The next year we made it and we did okay. The last two years we've made it and done really well. I think we're progressing every year and the team is taking that with them onto the next year. The upperclassmen are teaching that to the underclassmen. So every time we get to the regional site, I think we're going to be more comfortable there, more confident and that will allow us to move on to the next round.
TC: Is there anything in addition to that experience that you think you need to do working through the season? Will working your way up the rankings help?
BN: Sure. If we can find our way into a top eighteen seed, then you get shipped out. If you're a top eighteen you get spread out across the country. Being a top eighteen you'll be a one, two, or three going into the regional and like we talked about, it's better to go into the regional sites in the top three than in the bottom three. Last season we went in as the fourth seed which is good but we'd love to go in as the three or two. Then your chances of moving on are a lot better. In fact, we were on that pace last year. After the first week we were seventeen. We got as high as fourteen and then Kathy (Tang) hurt her ankle and we slid back to twenty-two but if we can stay in the top eighteen to twenty all year, I think that would really help.
TC: How does the early season schedule set up for you to do that?
BN: The rankings are really just based on your score. It's not really a matter of who you go against. But we have some good meets. We start off on the road. I like starting off on the road. Then we come home against West Virginia. If we can get out of the gate fast and get some good scores we should be able to maintain or build on our ranking. (Note: There are no polls for gymnastics rankings. The rankings are based on a team's average meet scores over the season.)
TC: Any surprises that you've seen from the intrasquad performances?
BN: Sarah (Faller) as a freshman has been great. We knew she was a good gymnast during the recruiting process but you never really know what's going to happen until they get out in front of a crowd and the lights, and all that. But she's shined in both the intrasquads. She went three for three. I think she's going to be a big contributor this year on three events and for a freshman that's pretty darn good.
TC: So she's one of the freshmen to watch. Are there any others?
BN: Emily Brauckmuller is one. She's a highly ranked recruit coming out of Florida. She was number four in the nation in her junior year. And also Nikki Chung from Australia. So those three I definitely expect to contribute. The other two freshmen are also excellent but they're hurt so I don't expect to see them much.
TC: What about the returning gymnasts? Have you seen a leap forward from someone?
BN: You have to start with our two All-Americans Stephanie and Katy. They've just gotten better and better. I think you'll see Kathy return to where she was last year. Those first four meets she was number one in the conference all four weeks in a row and then she got hurt. She's finally back to where she was before her injury. Karen (Tang), Kathy's sister looks great right now. Ebony Walters looks really good on floor.
TC: How much of coming back from an injury like Kathy's ankle injury is physiological and how much is psychological?
BN: It depends on the athlete. In Kathy's case even after she was cleared by the doctor, it took her some time before she was comfortable going all out. She was landing on it really cautiously and that just doesn't work in gymnastics. You can't go half speed on something. If you do, you're going to get hurt.
TC: What's the overall health of the team?
BN: The two freshmen are hurt but other than that, let me knock on some wood here, we're doing pretty well. We've got some bumps and bruises but they get a little break now and I think a lot of those aches and pains will go away. I think we're going to walk into this season feeling pretty good.
TC: How are you feeling about your last season in the EAGL? (Note: The ACC doesn't compete in gymnastics. The East Atlantic Gymnastics League is comprised of eight schools - George Washington, Maryland, New Hampshire, North Carolina, NC State, Pitt, Rutgers, and West Virginia.)
BN: It's bittersweet. The EAGL has been a good home for us and we're appreciative of all the things it's done for us. We're also looking forward very much to competing in the Big Ten. It's a premiere gymnastics conference. If you include us, the B1G would have 7 teams ranked in the top twenty-five. Once we're in the Big Ten, we going to get more consistent competition and higher scoring and our ranking should go up naturally because of that. I think we can hold our own in the conference and I'm excited to get in there.
TC: How does going to the Big Ten affect recruiting?
BN: Hugely. We get to tell recruits now about the BIG Network. You're going to be on tv all the time. You're going to go against some of the best in the country. And you're going to be in a conference that really cares about gymnastics. And you can feel it once you get in the conference. On the BIG Network, the top ratings are football, number two is basketball, number three is ice hockey, and number four is gymnastics. The EAGL is a great place and it's served its purpose for these teams that don't have a conference. But it's not like being in a true conference that places a lot of emphasis and priority on gymnastics. That's what we're looking forward to.
TC: Let's finish up by talking a little bit about the difference between college gymnastics and international competition so folks might have a better idea what to expect if they come to a Maryland gymnastics meet.
BN: Truthfully, a lot of the skills are the same. I think the biggest difference is the length of the routines. The international competitions have a lot of difficulty they need to get into the routines. In college, they're still doing very difficult stuff but the routines are shorter. Another big difference is the team aspect. Even though you can see Team USA, international gymnastics is driven much more by the individual - by star power like McKayla Maroney or Dominique Dawes. Here it's more about Maryland beating West Virginia or Maryland beating NC State. I think that's what the crowd gets into. You may only know one or two gymnasts but you're rooting for the whole team.
TC: Unlike most sports, the interim scores in gymnastics aren't always as determinative of the flow of the competition because one team might open on their weakest event while another starts their rotation on their strongest so the gap may not be as wide as it appears after one or two rotations.
BN: I think that can be a fun thing. You cannot know the outcome until that last event. Last year, in two meets, against West Virginia and NC State, we were trailing going into the final events. We had to put a big performance out on the floor exercise to pull away to win. And that's just what we did. So until every team has done all four events, you can't compare the scores on beam to the scores on floor. And all across the country (including for Maryland) you tend to get the higher scores on floor and vault.
As Coach Nelligan noted, the Terps will open on the road at Central Michigan on January 10 before coming back to College Park for their home opener on January 17 when they host West Virginia.