The Maryland Gymnastics team competed in their first Big Ten Championship Saturday. After a disappointing score at the Big 5 meet last week, the GymTerps needed to put up a big score to solidify their chances to return to the NCAA Tournament for a seventh consecutive year. They did that and more. We'll get to that. But first,
A Big Ten and NCAA Gymnastics Primer
Gymnastics is one of the few sports in which the Big Ten holds a meet to crown its champion.If you follow NCAA gymnastics or if you've followed our coverage, you know that in one sense there are no automatic qualifiers for the NCAA Gymnastics Tournament but in another sense there are 36 automatic qualifiers.
To review: Winning a conference championship does not necessarily assure entry into the NCAA Tournament. What does assure that entry is amassing one of the 36 highest regional qualifying scores (RQS) over the course of the season. Teams generally compete in 11 to 13 meets in a season. To calculate a team's RQS, find their six highest scores from the season's meets - with the caveat that at least three of those scores must come from away meets. Drop the highest score and calculate the average of the remaining five. If that average is in the 36 highest in the NCAA, your team makes the tournament.
Because managing a ten team meet is nearly impossibly unwieldy, the Big Ten divides its championship into a morning and an afternoon session. (They did this when the conference had eight members as well.) The week prior to the conference championship, they divide the league in half and compete in two Big 5 meets. The top three teams from each Big 5 meet compete in the afternoon session and the remaining four squads compete in the morning.
Competing in this year's evening session provides two advantages. First, scores simply tend to be higher in the evening. Second, with six teams competing, the evening session resembles an NCAA regional in which each team receives two rotational byes.
Starting six on the Floor
Just as they had in Big 5 Meet in Nebraska, the Terps opened their Big Ten Championship with the floor exercise. Though Maryland head coach Brett Nelligan thought his squad recovered from a very low score in that meet, the disappointing outcome must surely have been in the Terps' minds as they took to the mat Saturday morning.
Freshman Dominiquea Trotter got the Terps off to a promising start. She had no major flaws in any of her three tumbling runs and opened the rotation with a 9.750 - a full tenth of a point higher than her score in Lincoln. The floor exercise is the only apparatus on which Maryland sends at least four seniors and three of them, Shannon Skochko, Stephanie Giameo and Karen Tang followed the freshman Trotter. Skochko posted a 9.800 - her highest score of the season - and Giameo continued her late season consistency with a 9.775. Karen Tang also bettered her score from Lincoln putting up a 9.700.
The Terps close the rotation with Karen's younger sister Kathy and the fourth senior, Ebony Walters. Kathy's 9.800 matched the season high score she had posted on four other occasions. Although couldn't match the spectacular 9.950 she posted on her senior night, she had a huge final tumbling pass and scored a team high 9.825. Maryland finished the rotation with a team score of 48.950 that put them in second place behind Iowa - where they would remain all morning.
Vaulting into contention
For the first time since the opening meet of the season, the Terps would have to complete their vault rotation without redshirt senior and 2013 All-American Katy Dodds who is recovering from a back injury. Rather than having Dodds as their anchor, that slot would fall to another senior, Shannon Skochko.
But first Karen Tang would open the rotation. She did so with a 9.650. Sophomore Leah Slobodin back on the vault for the first time in a month, followed Tang with a 9.750. Trotter took the third spot and continued the upward trend by posting a 9.800.
The second part of Maryland's freshman dynamic vaulting duo, Abbie Epperson took her run down the mat and not only bettered Trotter's score but registered a personal best (as a Terp) 9.900. Kathy Tang seemed to fancy the 9.800 score on Saturday as she matched her floor score. Skochko anchored the rotation by equaling Tang's 9.800 and the Terps finished with a 49.100 - their second highest team score on vault for the season. After two rotations, Maryland had racked up a 98.050 total.
Evening it out on the Bars
As the Terps moved to the uneven parallel bars, they knew they would once again be without the services of Katy Dodds. Nikki Chung, who had taken Dodds' spot at the Big 5, would again be called up to do so.
But first, the rotation started with sophomore Sarah Faller. Although her score was an acceptable 9.650 for a lead off spot, it was Faller's lowest score on the event since her firsts competition against Minnesota. Chung, competing for only the second time this season, matched her Big 5 Meet score of 9.675.
Nelligan placed freshmen Evelyn Nee and Abbie Epperson in the third and fourth spots in the rotation. After falling in Lincoln, Nee showed here competitive fire with a score of 9.800 - her second highest of the season. Not to be out done, Epperson matched Nee's score.
The Tang sisters, Kathy and Karen, rounded out the rotation and sparkled for the GymTerps. Kathy posted the highest score to that point for Maryland with a 9.825 but it was Karen who would steal the show with a team high 9.900. It marked the fourth time this season she reached 9.900 or better on the event. Maryland's team score of 49.000 was their second highest of the season.
Keeping everything in Balance
The last apparatus in front of the Terps was the balance beam. With their team total sitting at 147.050, Maryland needed to essentially equal their season high of 48.975 to reach at least a 196.000 total.
Faller, clearly fighting back from her disappointing score on bars, demonstrated that she, too, is a fierce competitor as she opened the rotation by posting a 9.800 a season high that equaled her career high. Senior Dani Kram posted a confident 9.725 and Trotter finished her first Big Ten Championship with some flair posting a 9.800.
Skochko put up another strong routine and was rewarded with a 9.775 nearly equaling her season high. Catching on to the trend, Slobodin did post her season high and her 9.825 [Correction Slobodin's score was 9.85. Thanks to the sharp eyed reader who spotted my typo.] was the Terps best score on the event. Giameo anchored Maryland with a typically solid performance. Her 9.800 helped the Terrapins post a team score of 49.025 the first time all season that Maryland bettered 49.000 on the beam. Add it all up and the Terps finished with a season high team score of 196.075.
What it all means
The 196.075 score placed Maryland second in the morning session and assured them of no worse than an eighth place finish in the meet. When Ohio State finished the evening session with a 195.250, it the Terps moved into seventh place.
The real impact, however is on the Terrapins' RQS. This score allowed Maryland to drop a 194.925 from their RQS and include the 196.000 they posted on senior night. After their score of 194.875 in the Big 5, Maryland fell from 29th to 35th. Their new RQS of 195.505 (by my rough calculation) assures them of an NCAA bid and should move them into the top 30.
In addition, Karen Tang who the B1G announced earlier in the week had earned second team All-Conference honors, was named to the All-Tournament Team. Said Nelligan rightfully after the meet, "I am so proud of this team today. They were magical tonight. Everyone stepped up in our biggest meet of the season. We are really hitting our stride at the right time of the season."
Next up for the Gym Terps, Monday night's NCAA Selection show followed by their seventh straight trip to the NCAA Tournament.