The eight-day period from March 14–21 had a disappointing start, a promising middle, and holds a challenging opportunity at its end for the Maryland gymnastics squad. The GymTerps struggled with their scores in their section of the annual Big 5 Meet that precedes the Big Ten Championship. Midweek they learned that two seniors, Stephanie Giameo and Karen Tang, had earned second team All-Conference honors. Saturday's Big Ten Championship holds an opportunity for some redemption and the chance to secure a spot in the NCAA tournament for the seventh consecutive season. Let's take a look at them one by one.
The Big 5 meet
Bear with me here for a moment as I introduce the Big 5 Meet. The Terps were one of five teams to compete at Nebraska while Minnesota hosted the other half of the conference.
Anyone who has been to an NCAA gymnastics tournament has probably had the sense that it has a bit of a circus like atmosphere. With six teams competing and each team receiving two rotational byes, following the progress of the competition can become a bit strained. Thus, prior to holding its conference tournament, the Big Ten held two "Big 5" meets. This provides an objective way for them to divide the 10 competing teams into the two sessions that will comprise the conference tournament. The teams with the three highest scores from each Big 5 meet compete in an evening session and the four lowest-scoring teams compete in a morning session. The Terps didn't fare as well as they had hoped and will be one of the squads competing in the morning session.
The Big 5 Meet was the first competition in which the GymTerps had to contend with a rotational bye. (It's math. There are four apparatuses and five teams competing.) Maryland's bye came in the first rotation so they watched as Illinois, Michigan State, Nebraska and Ohio State competed.
The Terps opened on the floor exercise where they encountered some of the tightest scoring of a tightly-scored meet. Although the Terrapins have been a bit inconsistent on the floor this season, they appeared to have righted the ship in the three meets that preceded the Big 5 including posting a season-high 49.125 in the season's final home meet. That dropped somewhat precipitously to 48.500 – the second-lowest score of the season – in the meet at Nebraska.
Maryland head coach Brett Nelligan thought his team recovered reasonably well from the disappointment of those scores. "Right when floor ended, I could sense that they were disappointed so we talked about right there in the huddle. I told them to leave the scores and focus on what they'd done. I told them they'd done a great job and to go out and really explode on vault."
The Terps certainly made something of a recovery on the vault scoring a 48.950. This score, while a significant improvement, was something of a low-mid range score for the season. Perhaps Nelligan expected a better score. "I thought we put up big vaults with clean landings and did a great job in not letting the low scores from floor affect us." Still, just as it had been on the floor, the total score was fourth best among the five competing teams.
In a reversal of some of Maryland's early season struggles the balance beam, Maryland's third rotation, proved to be one of its stronger events. The Terps put up a team score of 48.750 which equaled their third best score of the season. The Terps finished on bars where they again posted one of the season's lowest scores – a 48.675. Maryland finished with a total score of 194.875 and finished fifth of the five teams in the Nebraska meet.
Their position assured them that they would compete in the morning session in the Big Ten Championship in Ann Arbor. Perhaps more critically, the Terps failed to improve their Regional Qualifying Score (RQS) and fell from the 29th spot to 35th. The top 36 teams qualify for the NCAA tournament.
A mid week pick me up
Tuesday afternoon, the Big Ten announced its All-Conference gymnastics teams and two Terrapins – Stephanie Giameo and Karen Tang (read her inspiring first-person account of her time at Maryland) – saw their season-long efforts rewarded with spots on the second team. Twelve athletes comprised the first team and eleven performers made second team.
Giameo currently ranks 41st nationally on balance beam with a 9.860 RQS and has scored 9.800 or higher in all 11 meets this season. Tang is 38th in the nation on bars hold a 9.870 RQS. She twice equaled her career best 9.925 score and posted a 9.900 on a third occasion.
The Terps will travel to Michigan to compete in the Big Ten Championship Saturday. The meet is a challenge and an opportunity for the squad. The challenge resides in not only proving themselves capable of competing at the higher level of the Big Ten, but also in posting a score that will improve their RQS and solidify their chances of appearing in the NCAA Tournament.
Maryland's high score in any meet of thus far this season has been 196.000. The Terrapins have shown that they are capable of reaching that level. If they can equal their high score of the season on each apparatus, they could score a 196.500. While this is not likely to be sufficient to propel them to a B1G title, it would significantly improve their RQS.
Nelligan has been taking his squad into earlier training sessions this week to help prepare them for the 11:30 a.m. start time. He also feels that a handful of recent meets that have had early afternoon starting times will be of some benefit.
I asked the coach about the possibility of encountering lower scores simply by competing in the morning session. "That's always the fear," he said. "That's one of the reasons we wanted to be in the evening session because traditionally the scores are higher. But that's not something we can control. We just need to do the best job we can. For example, Michigan was in the morning session last year and won the whole thing."
In the five meets that preceded the Big 5 Meet, three of which were road meets, the Terrapins posted an average score of 195.435. They will need a minimum score of 195.000 to improve their current RQS. If they can better that score with a 195.500, they should see enough of an improvement in their RQS to place themselves in the top 30 nationally and secure an NCAA bid.