The DU gymnastics team is chalking up its hands for its home opener this weekend. And, they’ll have those hands full.
The seventh-ranked Georgia Bulldogs, winners of 10 NCAA national championships, visit Magness Arena along with BYU and Air Force.
“Our preseason is fairly long so everyone’s anxious to get started,” says head coach Melissa Kutcher-Rinehart. “The energy is tremendous and will be especially high with Georgia here. We’re trying to prepare everyone physically and mentally so they can focus that energy and perform well in front of the fans and the judges.”
But in order to qualify for yet another trip to the NCAA tournament, the Pioneers will have to overcome some key departures and a tough schedule. The team will also need to get some key contributions from some newcomers and veterans.
“Some of our current team members will have to step up to fill [the graduates’] shoes and I’m expecting [the team] to improve,” Kutcher-Rinehart says. “However, we’re youthful, which also means inexperienced, so I’m expecting the learning curve to be a little steep. Although it’s still very early, I’m very encouraged by our progress.”
DU graduated three gymnasts who provided seven routines in their line-up. One graduate, Kelley Hennigan, qualified for the national championship last year. Replacing her contributions is crucial to the team’s success, Kutcher-Rinehart says. The team also has lost half of its beam line-up to graduation.
“The three [graduates] were in our beam line-up in just about every meet of the last four years,” Kutcher-Rinehart says. “Beam is one of the events that benefits from consistency and experience, so it’s a big change to have new competitors on beam.”
The schedule this year is not a simple stroll across the mat. Five opponents are ranked among the top 10 in the annual coaches’ preseason poll. The Pioneers will face many of their toughest competitors on the road, including last year’s national runner-up and current No. 4 Oklahoma on Jan. 21 and perhaps the most daunting opponent on their schedule, defending national champion UCLA on Feb. 27.
“Comparatively speaking, I’d have to say our schedule this year is much tougher than last,” Kutcher-Rinehart says. “We were undefeated at home last year and I’d like to keep that alive, Georgia as our first meet of the season will make it tough.”
Kutcher-Rinehart expects top performances from the senior class, which includes Kristina Coccia, Amanda Johanson, Annamari Maaranen and Taylor Sanford.
“With it being my last year, there are a lot of expectations,” says Kristina Coccia, a psychology major from Bethlehem, Penn. “I’ve set certain goals for myself throughout the year so it’s important to keep those end goals in mind. Any expectation [coach] sets is something to push me harder to become a better leader, gymnast and person.”
The team may be young with six freshman and two sophomores, but Coccia says it also has some of the greatest team chemistry she’s seen since at DU.
“The key to a successful year is to keep our team healthy and improve with every meet,” Kutcher-Rinehart says. “If we’re going to be in the top 10 at the end of the season, we’ve got to learn from our mistakes quickly and compete well early. Competing well on the road will be crucial to our success.”
Entering the regional as a top-10 team is a good goal for the team considering DU was selected to host an NCAA regional this year.
“We’re preparing for the regional like we would for any other season,” Kutcher-Rinehart says. “We’ve been progressively challenging our athletes with more difficult and strenuous training programs. They’ve been up for the challenge and, thus far, our team has met or exceeded my expectations in all areas.”
They also have a new coach on the staff, Jay Hogue.
“He’s a great fit for our program and is doing a fantastic job preparing the team on vault and bars,” Kutcher-Rinehart says. “Jay hasn’t coached collegiately but has had great success at every level at which he’s worked.”
Despite all the challenges, at least one gymnast says the team will turn some heads.
“We have hard-working girls on this team and that’s something you can’t beat,” Coccia says. “Of course, we want to win, but as long as we do our best routines, I have a feeling we are going to surprise a lot of people this year, including Georgia.”
The DU gymnastics team competes in its first meet of the season at 6 p.m. Jan. 8 at DU’s Magness Arena. For tickets, visit www.denverpioneers.com. Alicia Sacramone, who competed on the silver-medal-winning American women’s gymnastics team in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, will attend the meet as a guest of honor.