You’d have to know Maryland gymnastics’ home to find it. The Terps’ practice gym is tucked to the side of the School of Public Health building, its exterior entrance sitting beneath the stairs and obscured by trees. This colorful arrangement of mats, beams and bars also houses Gymkana, a well-known acrobatic gymnastics troupe, but on a Tuesday afternoon in early April, the varsity team owns the place.
There’s a board of team goals hanging on the back wall. It includes a mix of tangible objectives and coachspeak mottos (my favorite was “trust the fight”). Right in the middle of the 10-item list is being the loudest team at every meet; everyone on the squad thinks that’s been achieved, and in hearing them at practice, it’s hard to argue. But they’ve made some noise with their performance, as well.
Maryland is the No. 28 gymnastics team in the nation and will participate in the NCAA Tournament Athens Regional starting Friday. The Terps went 17-8 this season, but it was their Regional Qualifying Score of 195.84 (200 is perfect) that earned them that No. 28 ranking. Teams ranked between 29th and 36th in RQS have to compete in play-in meets Thursday, with winners advancing to Friday regionals.
While those play-in meets are part of a new NCAA Championships format this year, Maryland knew right away it wanted nothing to do with them. Skipping straight to the full regional was a year-long goal (yes, it was on the board). The Terps knew their ranking before the selection show, but still celebrated when their name was called.
“I think we were all just really excited that we finally accomplished a goal that we set at the beginning of the year as a team,” junior Alecia Farina said.
Last season, Maryland returned to the postseason after a two-year absence, placing 31st in the rankings and finishing fourth at a six-team regional in Raleigh, North Carolina. The 2018 Terps featured predominantly underclassmen, and another year of growing together has been a clear benefit. The players all say they’re more comfortable with each other, and Nelligan has seen them continue to buy in.
“We achieved a lot of goals last year, maybe even some that we didn’t think we could get that early with that young of a team,” head coach Brett Nelligan said. “So it raised our expectations for ourselves. And I think what they’ve done a really good job of is, it’s their expectations as well, not the coaching staff’s. And that’s what’s helping us really push forward.”
Maryland will partake in the night session in Athens, joining No. 1 overall seed Oklahoma, No. 16-seed California and either No. 31 NC State or No. 34 New Hampshire. The top two finishers will advance to Saturday, and two of the four squads at that stage will make it out of the regional final and into championship weekend in Fort Worth, Texas, from April 19-20.
With nearly two weeks between the selection show and regional meet, the Terps had time last week to focus on small details in their routines; Nelligan said they were “looking at trying to be perfect.” This week has been closer to normal, although avoiding the play-in allowed Monday to be an off day. Maryland knows extending its season will require beating other teams, but by “staying in our bubble”—another motto that lives on that board—the team is focused on being the best version of itself.
“It’s very much doing one thing at a time, having each other’s back, staying in our own bubble and focusing on what we need to do as opposed to looking around and seeing what other people are doing,” junior Kirsten Peterman said. “So I think going into regionals, that approach is going to be very similar, and I’m excited to see what happens out of that.”
Gymnastics is a sport of razor-thin margins. Teams put 195 points on the board and lose by a tenth of a point. Any step or twist can be the difference, and anything other than unwavering confidence can send everything crashing down. The NCAA Tournament comes with heightened nerves, and Maryland is doing as much as it can to prepare for that.
“We’re gonna practice getting nervous, feeling the energy, feeling the tension, then take a breath, calming down, and then doing your routines,” Nelligan said. “The nerves are gonna be there no matter what—it’s a big competition, there’s a lot of people in the stands. It’s what you do with them.”
In the end, it comes back to that same mentality—focusing inward and letting everything else sort itself out. That mentality has been a constant in the last couple years, and the results are reflecting the hard work. After recording the highest postseason score in program history (195.85) at last year’s regional, Maryland has a chance to top that this weekend, and perhaps advance a round or two. It’d be a fitting step for a program on the rise.
“This is the reason they came here. They came to Maryland to build something, and they’re doing it,” Nelligan said. “They’re actually seeing their hard work and efforts pay off because the program is rising. And a program can’t rise without the athletes, and they are the ones out there doing it.
“The margins are really slim, so it’s not guaranteed. Just because you come in and work hard, nothing’s guaranteed. But they’ve done that, and they’re kind of reaping the benefits right now, and I’m just proud of them.”