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Maryland gymnastics has a chance to turn heads in 2015-2016

I sat down with head coach Brett Nelligan before the GymTerps host Iowa in their Big Ten home opener on Sunday.

Brett Nelligan lives and breathes gymnastics. This is his 12th season with Maryland gymnastics, and his sixth as head coach of the program. He took over from his father, so you could say that this sport is in his blood.

"For me, taking over for my father, the transition to the Big Ten, trying to take the program onto the national, it's been an honor, but for me, it's a sense of responsibility," Nelligan said. "Growing up here, I know all of the alums. Some of his athletes used to babysit me. I still communicate with all of them...I feel responsible to put this program on a national stage so they can come back and show their kids, "Look, this is where Mom used to compete."."

He summed it up by saying, "I just feel responsible to our alums and to my parents to do the very best job that we can with this program."

Nelligan had a veteran squad last year, and the Terps ended their season with a third-place finish at the NCAA Regionals, their highest finish at the Regionals since 2001. If you think he's satisfied with that, you don't know Nelligan.

Now Maryland's energetic, charismatic head coach faces a different challenge: a squad full of talented youngsters.

I talked with Nelligan ahead of the team's Big Ten home opener against the Hawkeyes.

On dropping their Big Ten opener to Minnesota

" We weren't happy with the scores up in Minnesota, but we were happy with what we did."

"If you go back and watch what we did, the performances were good. The scores didn't reflect that."

On having a young team this season

"It's a young team, so we're not exactly sure what to expect having only one senior in the lineup as compared to six last year."

"Last year, the seniors that we graduated were so integral to that rise. In 2013, we were as high as No. 14 in the country. They were in those spots in the lineup for four years. We knew what we were going to get. We knew what to expect. This is a whole new ballgame."

"Sometimes I get nervous, but I have to approach it more from an excitement standpoint...I know they're talented...I'm excited to see their growth, and have them become the next group of kids that locks down those spots for four years. I'm excited to see Macey [Roberts] become the next Katy Dodds and Megan [McClelland] become the next Steph Giameo, but do it in their own way."

"I'm excited to see these guys earn these spots, lock them down, and create the next run for our program."

On what it takes to make the jump to being a perennial Top-25 team

"We worked really hard to make this jump. Before I started as head coach, we hadn't made the postseason in five straight  years. Now we're on seven in a row [making it to the postseason], looking to go eight. We've made that initial jump. The next level is difficult."

"I think it's going to take a few things. We have some great recruits coming in. That's first and foremost."

"The transition to the Big Ten is one of the biggest keys. With the higher profile conference, that's going to help us with recruiting, with scoring...The influx of cash is essential. We need to upgrade some facilities. We need to upgrade some recruiting dollars...Those things are coming in now, and that's what going to take us to the next level."

"We have short-term goals and we have long-term goals [for this year's team]...The long-term is we want to develop these freshmen to become confident, high-scoring anchor spots and leaders too. We want these kids to be able to take the freshmen next year under their wing."

On his freshmen

"For their first two times out, they've done a great job. I think there's tons of potential this season."

"They're all super-talented. That's first and foremost...It's just exciting because you don't know what you're going to get. That's also what's scary about freshmen."

"They come in the gym every day and they work hard. Their gymnastics looks great in the gym, but until you see them out there, under the lights, in front of the crowd, with the pressure on them, you just don't know what they're going to do."

"So far, these freshmen seem to rise to the occasion in competition setting, which is really refreshing to see."

"I think freshmen's growth are dependent on how quickly they learn that skill of how to be confident and aggressive, even if they're nervous or anxious or excited. These guys are starting off at a great point, so that's what impresses me."

"They started pretty confident, so I'm excited to see where they are by the end of this year and where they are by the end of the four years. It could be really impressive."

"We need to get Shynelle [Agaran] out there too...She's still out with a concussion right now, and she was one of our highest-ranked freshmen. She was on the junior olympic national team, and was No. 1 in the nation on beam and No. 2 on bars."

On the team's Big Ten home opener against Iowa

"I think this will be a big test for us this weekend."

"They are over-the-top excited...We love competing at home. The Xfinity Center is one of the best venues in all of college gymnastics. We have some of the best fans ever. We're fifth in the Big Ten in attendance and 23rd in the nation."

"They love being out there under the bright lights in front of our home crowd."

"Last year, Iowa was a turning point for us. We hadn't put together a solid meet until that point. That was the moment where we did. We felt like we were good enough to win that meet and came up just a bit short...I know they're excited to get that win this year."

On trying to make Maryland gymnastics meets "an event"

"[The University of] Georgia is the model for me. Everything we do, we're gonna do it first-class, all the way. What the SEC does so well is that they make gymnastics a priority. It is one of their premier sports. It's very important to the conference. It's very important to each individual school. Look at the number of times they're on the SEC Network...There are billboards all over Athens. That's something the Big Ten does a good job at but could do a great job at."

"If you look at the attendance numbers for gymnastics, there's opportunity there. Gymnastics in the Olympics is the number two most-watched event only to the Super Bowl."

"Fans want it, so I think it's a no-brainer.

The Bottom Line

Maryland won't be competing for a national title in the near future, but this program is definitely on the rise. The Terps were in the Top-25 earlier this season and there's no reason to think that they can't crack the national rankings again this year.

The goal for Nelligan is simple and straight-forward. He has a short-term and a long-term vision for Maryland gymnastics.

1) Develop the talented young gymnasts he already has. In just a year or two, these young women can elevate the program and keep the GymTerps in the bottom tier of the Top-25.

2) The all-important influx of talent is on the way, and Nelligan has a pipeline of great gymnasts that will be donning dozens of different Maryland leotards.

3) In four or five years, Nelligan will have the balance of seasoned veterans and raw talent that he needs to take Maryland into the next tier.

Right now, Maryland is a good team. A good, young and untested team. The GymTerps aren't a great team yet, and Maryland isn't a great program yet.

Nelligan has focused his considerable talent and energy on changing that. Now his efforts are starting to bear fruit. This will be a process that takes years, and Maryland is playing catch-up in a conference and school that doesn't place a big priority on gymnastics compared to say, the SEC.

What I can tell you is that Nelligan is in the process of building something in College Park that could end up being really special.

Nelligan concluded our interview by saying, "It's really an exciting time for us over the next three, four years and it starts right now. It starts with these young kids."

Keep your eye on Maryland gymnastics. What Brett Nelligan is building is built to last. That is the bottom line.