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Stepping up: Gymnastics faces transitional year

Six of eight Big Ten gymnastics teams reached the 2014 NCAA Tournament as did 2015 newcomers Maryland and Rutgers. TT spoke at length with head coach Brett Nelligan about the Terrapins' outlook as they make this competitive transition.

Courtesy Maryland Athletics

The widespread optimism surrounding the 2014 Maryland Terrapins gymnastics team was nearly palpable. The Terps roster had two returning All-Americans in Katy Dodds and Stephanie Giameo and had reached the NCAA Tournament for a fifth consecutive year where they finished fourth at the regional - their highest placement in a decade. They returned an experienced roster and had added several promising freshmen.

Then the injuries started. Rotations were disrupted. Some gymnasts tried to compete through their injuries while some of the athletes, including the freshmen, had to vault into unexpected roles. And team struggled. They made a late season charge to barely qualify for a sixth straight NCAA Tournament appearance. This time, they finished a disappointing sixth of the six teams in the regional after perhaps their worst performance of the season. Maryland's head gymnastics coach, Brett Nelligan had this to say about the experience:

"The team was exhausted. We really had to fight and claw and scratch just to make it into the regional at Penn State because of all the injuries we had throughout the season. I think by the time we got there we were too worn out just from making it.

"I think the whole year has served as motivation. We were so excited after 2013 when we finished in the top 25 and had two All-Americans that we were really shocked when that just didn't continue to happen. Comparing those two years, everybody likes the year before better. Last year wasn't fun. We didn't enjoy it. We were constantly injured. We were constantly fighting our way out of the bottom of the rankings. We plan on getting back to 2013 form."

In gymnastics, Maryland's transition to the Big Ten will be more gradual than in other sports. Fans looking at the 2015 schedule will not only notice meets with a number of old friends from the EAGL (the Terps' previous conference) but also the absence of some B1G opponents. Rutgers was also a member of the EAGL so the Terrapins will face them in a dual meet in Piscataway and will see them again at West Virginia. Only the former will count as a Big Ten meet. Nelligan had an explanation:

"When they announced we were going to the Big Ten, we were already scheduled with our EAGL opponents three years in advance so we have some holdovers. But we've still got Michigan here. We've got Minnesota here. We go to Iowa, Penn State, and Rutgers."

Another scheduling difference Terps fans will notice happens in the week before the B1G Championship. The league holds two "big five" meets. The ten conference teams are split into two groups of five each. Maryland will compete at Nebraska together with Illinois, Ohio State, and Michigan State while Minnesota will host the other four teams. These meets determine the seeding for the B1G Championship. The top three finishers from each meet go to the night session and the remaining four teams will go to the bottom bracket.

The 400 pound gorilla of NCAA women's gymnastics is the Southeastern Conference. Nine of the last ten champions and five runners-up have come from the SEC. Still, the B1G is not a soft place for the Terps to land. Last season, the Big Ten sent six of its eight teams to NCAA Regionals while both Maryland and Rutgers also earned tournament spots. Four of the six traditional B1G teams advanced to a Super Regional and Nebraska reached the "Super Six" (teams that reach the championship round).

However, Nelligan believes the move to the Big Ten will generate improved scores for the Terps. Gymnastics scoring contains an element of relativity. Teams and individuals are scored on their performance relative to the competition. According to the coach, "Seeing higher level opponents should translate to higher level scores. It's tough for judges to gauge us when we're going against lower level teams. Now that we're going against top ranked opponents week in and week out it will be easier for them to appropriately score us and that should lead to higher scores and a higher ranking."

A look at the team

One of the primary concerns in gymnastics - as in most sports is injuries. After their annual Red and Black meet Friday night, the squad will continue training before taking a break for the holidays. They will open their season on January 9, 2015 by hosting West Virginia and George Washington. Nelligan said his team had some aches and pains and some bumps and bruises but that they were "doing pretty well for this time of the year."

This year's team is Nelligan's most experienced. The squad features six seniors and four juniors as well as two sophomores who should benefit from having picked up extensive experience last season.

"In some ways all those injuries are something of a blessing in disguise. We got to return some people who wouldn't have come back. We got some experience for our younger kids. You can already see that in practice and the preliminary intrasquad matches that aren't open to the public. Our consistency rate is already pretty high. That's something we were lacking at this time last year. We had falls on beam. We had mistakes on floor. We've already been able to be more consistent because of the experience of our returners."

One the key performers returning from an injury that sidelined her for most of last year will be redshirt senior Katy Dodds. As a junior, Dodds earned All-American status on the vault and expected to anchor the 2014 team before an achilles tendon injury brought her season to a premature end.

Nelligan says Dodds is back to form on vault but isn't quite back on her floor exercise routine. Still, her presence ripples through the team,

"It's already great having her back. She's such a competitor. She wants to win whether it's a conditioning contest, a home meet, or just some routines during practice. So having that competitive nature in the gym spreads through the team."

While Maryland's other 2013 All-American, Stephanie Giameo, didn't suffer a significant injury in 2014, she also didn't quite match her performance as a sophomore. She anchored the team, however, and was the Terps' most consistent and reliable competitor. Here's Nelligan's take on this and on  what to expect from her this season:

"I think some of her trouble last year was because we had so many injuries we didn't have the scores building before her. She needs the scores to build before she goes last on beam, for example. When we get our depth back and our high scoring back in the lineup, it'll help bump all of our fifth and sixth competitors."

Each of the other four members of the senior class will also bring a wealth of competitive experience to the floor. Dani Kram competed on the beam in all 13 meets last season as did Shannon Skochko. Karen Tang competed in at least three events in all 13 meets as well as six times in the all-around where she set a career high in the season's final dual meet against West Virginia. She also recorded career highs in vault, bars, and floor at various times throughout the season. She'll be joined by Ebony Walters who competed on beam and floor in every meet and who twice matched her career high on the floor exercise.

Juniors Kathy Tang and Alex Zimmerman Will Likely make significant contributions. The younger Tang sister has shown great promise in a career that has been dogged by injuries but could be an all-around competitor for the Terps if she can stay healthy. Zimmerman competed on the floor 11 times in 2014 matching her career best in a late season meet against George Washington.

Expect to see sophomore Sarah Faller competing regularly in three events once again this season. Early on, Nelligan looked at Faller as a possible all-around competitor but, noting her struggles on the floor exercise, he indicated that she would again compete on vault, beam, and bars eschewing the floor exercise. Another of last year's freshmen, Australian Nikki Chung, will according to Nelligan, "compete on vault for sure. She always has a shot for bars (where she competed four times last season) and has a new dismount on her beam routine that could earn her a spot there as well.

Given the breadth of experience on the 2014 Terrapins, barring significant injury, Nelligan is likely to bring this year's freshman class along slowly. It's worth  noting, however, that one of his freshmen, Abbie Epperson, joined Giameo in representing Maryland on the preseason Big Ten Women's Gymnasts to Watch list.

Six seniors! So what happens next?

Nelligan talked about a level of excitement surrounding the program. The initial piece of news is that he has recently signed a five year contract extension. For the coach it shows that

"Kevin (Athletics Director Kevin Anderson) supports the direction we're going and he's just as excited as we are. It makes me feel good that he recognizes all the hard work that my staff and I have been doing and he supports it. It was important for him to say hey we want you to stay here. We think that this program is building. I'm excited that he's so supportive of the program."

And, while he hopes to nurture the current crop of freshmen slowly, he is already reaping a recruiting bonus from Maryland's move to the Big Ten. The Terps have announced a three person class who will start at Maryland in September 2015 consisting of Macey Roberts, Shynell Agaran, and Maggie McClelland. Nelligan showed his excitement for all three:

"Macey is from Tennessee and is super powerful and explosive. She's got every trick in the book. It will be fun for us as coaches to work with her because she has so many options on passes and so many different dismounts.

"Shynell Agaran is from Florida and she has superstar potential. She was number one  in the nation last year on beam, number two in the nation on bars 12th in all-around. We could see her in the all-around for MD as a freshman.

"Megan McClelland is a South Carolinian and she's the opposite of Macey who's explosive and powerful. Megan is more about finesse, poise, and grace. Her specialties are bars and beam and she is a beautiful gymnast to watch."

Thanks our good friend Raleigh Terp, Testudo Times can also report of a verbal commitment for the class of 2017 from Emilie LeBlanc. Emilie trains at Sonshine Gymnastics, the same club as current Maryland sophomore Sarah Faller. Raleigh describes her as "a very good gymnast and an even better kid."

A  bit of internet sleuthing turned up some other names in Maryland's future. For 2016, Emma Johnson of Ramapo, NJ, who trains at the U.S. Developmental Gymnastics Center in New Jersey and was recently named The Record's Gymnast of the Year. She'll be joined by Ohioan Alecia Farina who comes from a powerhouse high school program in Chesterland. She trains at Gymnastics World.

Joining LeBlanc as verbally committed members in the class of 2017 are Jasmine Newsome and Sabriyya Rouse. Rouse is another North Carolinian. She hails from Raleigh and trains at Team Attraction Gymnastics in Apex, NC. Newsome, like Johnson, is from New Jersey and committed to the Terps as a ninth grader. She said at the time that she was looking forward, "to go back in the gym day after day training harder and harder to be the best Terp  I can."

Wrapping it up

Coach Nelligan and his GymTerps are eager to get started in the Big Ten where the preseason slates them seventh - ahead of only Michigan State, Rutgers, and Iowa. The coach summed up his feelings (before the poll's release):

"We want to make our name in the Big Ten. We've always had a feeling that we were a big team in a small pond. We felt like we never got the respect we deserved. Now we're in a major conference and we finally feel like we're in a place where we belong. We want to show everyone that we not only belong there but that we're a team to be reckoned with - a team to be feared in the Big Ten."