The NCGA has gone through a coaching upheaval in recent years. Out of 13 member institutions, seven schools have hired new head coaches in the last five years and all seven are young women.
We were able to chat with the four newest NCGA head coaches who are quickly approaching their first seasons at the helm—Sierra Day from Cortland, Monica Mesalles Nassi from Rhode Island College, Kim Valenti from Ursinus and Danielle Schulzetenberg from UW-Eau Claire. They shared some of their goals for this season, the greatest triumphs and trials of this journey so far and plans for the future of their programs.
Sierra Day – Cortland
Sierra Day joined Cortland as an assistant coach after serving as a volunteer assistant coach at the Air Force under head coach Doug Day, who happens to be her father. She credits him as one of her biggest coaching role models as she has had the chance to see firsthand how he took a team from a 179.250 in 2007—his first season—to scoring a school record of 195.675 last season. “I watched the patience, perseverance and integrity it took to change the culture of Air Force gymnastics, and I hope to make a similar impact at Cortland.”
So far, Day seems to be living up to this goal. Though she has kept practices and skill development similar to how it was under former head coach Gary Babjack, it’s extra things like more team bonding, leadership development and sport psychology training that have helped make a difference. She has already seen the change these things have made in the team’s culture but thinks the most difficult part of the journey is not yet knowing whether the things she’s doing and adding to the program will truly make a difference to performance in the long run.
Day loves leading and motivating the girls to make changes in their lives mentally, emotionally and physically, and the team’s main goal this year is to make every routine count while enjoying the process. There have been some injuries to its already small roster, so the motto for the season is ALL IN. She says that if each of the girls are “all in” on trusting themselves, their roles and their teammates, the team is in for an exciting season.
Monica Mesalles Nassi – Rhode Island
Monica Mesalles Nassi was the assistant coach at Rhode Island for three years before being named head coach this season. After loving her experience as a collegiate gymnast at Bridgeport, Nassi wanted to stay involved in the sport and felt Rhode Island was a great school where she could help the program.
Because she’s been with the program since this year’s seniors were freshmen, she says seeing the how motivated the girls are and their desire to add new skills and increase their start values year after year has been one of the most exciting parts about this transition from assistant to head coach. And although she hasn’t experienced much difficulty so far, Nassi already knows that watching the two seniors finish up their collegiate gymnastics career will be one of the hardest things for her as she was there with them from the very beginning.
The team’s biggest goal for the year is to start off stronger than any past season. Nassi intends to accomplish this by pulling leadership and coaching techniques from her prior experience not only as a collegiate gymnast but from her time on the Spanish National Team as well. “Being in the gym and dedicating pretty much 100 percent of my time to gymnastics is helping me value what is important and what can be changed to help the girls get stronger. I make sure things that didn’t help me in the past and throughout my career are not a part of my coaching style.”
Kim Valenti – Ursinus
Philly resident and former assistant coach at Penn, Kim Valenti is the only one of the four new head coaches to come into the position after not having been an assistant coach for the program. Though many might have struggled being put in a situation like this, Valenti has been able to build an enormous amount of trust and sense of family within the team. She knew this would be a critical component in the success of her leadership so team meetings, one-on-one meetings and captains meetings are held regularly, and she maintains an “open-door” policy with her athletes. However, she gives a lot of credit to the gymnasts, as most of them have really embraced her and the fresh ideas and strategies a young female coach brings to the table.
It hasn’t all been a cake walk though. After being an assistant coach, Valenti finds herself wanting to get deep into the nitty gritty of daily practice, when in reality she knows as a head coach she needs to be focusing on the big picture and future of the program. Another barrier was her unfamiliarity with the NCGA. Guidance from NCGA Executive Director Jon Santer and peers such as Springfield’s Jenn Najuch have helped her familiarize herself with this new territory, which she says besides some regulations and recruiting differences, is quite similar to her experience in a DI program.
But these minor struggles haven’t kept her spirits down. Valenti worked with the team to set some big goals, ranging from team GPA all the way to sitting in the 190.000 team score range for the majority of the season. But the team’s biggest goal is to qualify to nationals after missing out in 2018. Valenti thinks this is definitely achievable and even says the goal for the next three to five years is to become one of the top schools that comes to mind when thinking about who is in contention for the national title.
Danielle Schulzetenberg – UW-Eau Claire
Danielle Schulzetenberg is a Blugold through and through. After having an amazing student-athlete experience at Eau Claire, Schulzetenberg knew she wanted to give back to the sport. She was able to fulfill an internship requirement for her coaching minor under previous head coach Jean DeLisle and knew college gymnastics was the place for her. “There is just something unique about bringing girls from different states, many never being part of a ‘team’ before, together to become a second family.”
A new head coach and two new assistants could have been daunting for the gymnasts to face coming off a good performance at conference last year, but Schulzetenberg says watching how the girls have all come together shows the heart they have for the sport, which has made the transition in the gym really fun. Her personal goal for the year is to take the season one day at a time and not let herself get too far ahead. Her goal for the girls is for them to believe they are great in all aspects of their lives—a goal that seems to be driven by one of her biggest mentors, DeLisle, and how she made each person feel like they were more than just a gymnast. So in addition to showcasing all the hard work and great routines they are capable of, they are working hard in the classroom and shooting for an improved team GPA.
This is the team’s 49th year as a program, so the themes for 2019 are “Leaving a Legacy” and “Team 49.” With the help of the Blugold athletics department, other WIAC coaches and DeLisle, Schulzetenberg is definitely embracing and carrying on the legacy of her predecessors.
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Article by Rachel Riesterer
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