Coaching changes, signing classes and culture changes have shaken up many teams this off season. We’re especially excited to see how these six teams handle those changes and can’t wait to see how they fare in 2018.
The battle toward the Super Six is always exciting. Of the top teams, Georgia in particular is going to have to fight this season. There seems to be a lot at stake this year for the Gym Dogs and new head coach Courtney Kupets Carter. In 2017, Georgia fired head coach Danna Durante after its 12th-place finish. Durante had dismissed several members of the team shortly before her dismissal.
Kupets Carter and Suzanne Yoculan Leebern reinstated Natalie Vaculik, Jasmine Arnold and Caroline Bradford (who later retired and moved into a manager position) after they were brought in to right the ship. To add to the chaos, Georgia’s freshmen class has suffered several injuries in the preseason. They may not be healthy enough to bring as many routines to the table as expected this year, which could hinder the Gym Dogs, while Vaculik was out of lineups most of last year with mono and then a strange absence. Georgia will appreciate having her back in the bar lineup if all is well.
The Gym Dogs will also likely rely on sophomore Rachel Dickson, who had a strong freshman season and has been seen training vault and floor upgrades. Junior all arounder Sydney Snead will also need to have another strong season if Georgia is going to be successful this year. We will be watching closely to see how the team looks under its new coaching staff, and whether it will make a competitive push to return to the Super Six. Having Yoculan back in the mix means it will be anything but boring.
Penn State has also undergone big changes in the offseason, with new coach Sarah Shire Brown now at the helm. The Nittany Lions have a strong freshman class, featuring standouts Alissa Bonsall, Lauren Bridgens and Ava Verdeflor. Verdeflor is coming off of ACL surgery but looks solid on bars and beam. In addition to the strong freshmen class, the team has stellar upperclassmen in Sabrina Garcia and Briannah Tsang, plus Jessica Jones returning to competition after being sidelined with an injury last year.
In the wealth of training updates the team has shared, it looks healthy, confident and ready to fight for a spot in the night session of the Big Ten championships. Look for the Nittany Lions to be refreshed under their new staff and to better than their 31st place finish from 2017.
No team has been through a bigger tidal wave in the past year than Michigan State. After head coach Kathie Klages left amidst scandal surrounding the Larry Nassar case, the program found itself at the center of the gymnastics news cycle. Mike Rowe replaced Klages as interim, and now official, head coach.
Junior standout Lindsey Lemke spoke out about her experiences with Nassar and Klages. She was eventually profiled in a Cosmopolitan article. After that turmoil and an injury that restricted her summer training, Lemke has retired. She remains with the team in a student coaching role. It’s difficult to see a standout athlete retire before her senior season in any situation, but Lemke do so after all she and the team have been through is especially moving.
How will the Spartans fare in 2018 after so much upheaval? Though they will miss Lemke and their strong 2017 seniors, the Spartans have solid veterans in Hailee Westney and Ella Douglas. Sophomore Ally Hoyer has shown upgrades in preseason training, and the freshmen class includes standouts Lea Mitchell and Anne Maxim. The latter even brings a 10.0 vault to East Lansing. The Big Ten will be competitive this year, especially for the six evening championship spots alongside shoe-ins Nebraska and Michigan. We will be watching to see whether this team can fight for one of those spots and a regionals berth.
Anne Kuhm on beam! pic.twitter.com/RVhK7Tyl0k
— Amy Grace (@amygracie98) November 18, 2017
Arizona State had three strong years recently, qualifying to regionals from 2012 to 2014. The 2015 to 2017 seasons were less successful, but the team has shown sparks of greatness. ASU scored a 195.7 last season to beat rival Arizona for its first win in conference play since 2014.
The team returns notable senior all arounder Nichelle Christopherson and sophomore Ashley Szafranski, who will look to build on a strong freshman campaign. ASU’s lone 2017 senior was beam specialist Beka Conrad. Junior beamer Heather Udowitch will likely take her spot, as she is capable of 9.875s on the event.
ASU brings in a strong freshmen class, featuring French fan favorite Anne Khum who looked stellar in the team’s recent intrasquad. Coaches Jay and Jess Santos said they sat down with the team after last season and began the process of shifting the culture of the program. That shift seems evident in preseason updates from the Gym Devils. Look for Arizona State to improve their record in the Pac-12 and make a regionals push this year.
— TripleTwist (@TripleTwistGym) December 4, 2017
Eastern Michigan is another team that has been on a bit of a rollercoaster this offseason. After having two strong seasons in 2016 and 2017, the team has yet again lost a head coach. Jay Santos led the Eagles to a program-best 17th place finish and MAC conference title in 2016 before leaving for Arizona State. EMU brought in Sarah Shire Brown for the 2017 campaign and finished 27th, again taking the MAC title. Brown then left for Penn State.
In the off season, EMU pegged Josh Nilson for the head coaching role. Shortly thereafter, Nilson stepped down for personal reasons and is now an assistant at Air Force. Finally, in July, Katie Minasola took over as head coach. During the whirlwind coaching drama, the Eagles also lost their top all arounder in senior Catie Conrad, who transferred to Pittsburgh.
Losing both Conrad’s scores and leadership could be a real hardship for the team. However, the Eagles return bar and beam star Kendall Valentin. Valentin, a senior, had a 2017 bar RQS of 9.925, tied for seventh nationally with Lexie Priessman and Amelia Hundley. In EMU’s recent exhibition at Michigan, Valentin performed in the all around for the first time since 2016, tallying a promising 39.125. The Eagles are adding six true freshmen and one redshirt freshman to their ranks for 2018, including three-time J.O. Nationals qualifier Brianna Price and two-time qualifier Courtney Bezold. We are excited to see how the team will fare under Minasola and without Conrad; upperclassmen and freshmen alike will need to step up if the Eagles are going to defend their MAC title again this year.
The Cardinal had a very rough 2017, finishing a program-low 28th only two years after qualifying to Super Six in 2015. Stanford qualified to nationals in seven of the nine years prior to 2017, making last year’s collapse both surprising and dramatic. Injuries to Cardinal star Elizabeth Price hurt team results, but the culture was also at play. Krysten Smith left her head coaching role during the off season after Stanford administration opened an investigation into her coaching practices. Tabitha Yim, Stanford gymnastics alumna and previously head coach at Arizona, stepped into the position.
We have already seen a dramatic change under Yim, who has significantly increased the team’s social media presence and transparency. Price appears to be back to full strength for her senior season, and the team adds the top recruiting class of the year, led by level 10 standout Kyla Bryant, as well as Rachael Flam and Lauren Navarro. We are anxious to see whether Yim can lead her team back to prominence. The Cardinal has the talent; will we see it in St. Louis in April?
What teams are you excited to watch this season? Let us know in the comments.
Article by Emily Minehart