Southern Utah had a rockstar class of seniors graduate in 2017, leaving each lineup essentially halfway depleted. While those that return are expected to contribute on multiple events, the enormous freshman class must also be counted on to fill in the gaps for the Thunderbirds to maintain their top 25 status.
On vault, Southern Utah finished 19th, but unfortunately, the graduating class took most of the team’s best vaults with it, so it’ll be up to the freshmen to keep the team at the level it’s become accustomed to. Mikaela DeFilippo will be most instrumental with her handspring pike half, a 10.0 vault that should easily slide into a late lineup position. Julianna Dahlke is also training a 10.0 vault—a Yurchenko full-on tuck off—but it doesn’t look like it’ll be ready in time for competition in January. A plethora of newcomers are also training Yurchenko fulls, some who competed it in club and some who are upgrading for college. Morgan Alfaro and McKenna Burnside are looking the best of that group, with good dynamics and lots of power. Jiang Braley had a full in the past, and she’s been seen training it at SUU, so it’s possible she could make an appearance. And Hannah Nipp, though she competed a layout in club, has trained a full in the past and has such clean form that she, too, could sneak into the top six.
The veterans should also be expected to contribute heavily. Karen Gonzalez competes Tsuk tuck full, which only starts from a 9.9 and has been rather inconsistent throughout her college career. Though it is an option to keep in mind, we don’t expect her to make the top six on a regular basis. Both McBride twins sport decent Yurchenko fulls, with Madison edging out sister Megan for higher scores. Madison has also trained a one and a half in the past, though we haven’t seen her train it as a Thunderbird. Autumn Jorgensen, too, competes a decent full, earning as high as 9.825 last season.
Also to be considered is senior Amber Heltemes, who has not competed vault in college but has been spotted training a full. In addition, transfer Madison Loomis comes from San Jose State. Though she did not compete vault there, she has competed a Yurchenko layout half in the past, so keep an eye on her as well. Below you’ll find our choices for the Thunderbirds’ vault lineup in 2018.
Me. McBride | Burnside | Jorgensen | Alfaro | Ma. McBride | DeFilippo
Alternates: Braley | Heltemes | Nipp
Bars is where Southern Utah returns the most routines. However, the contributions from the newcomers will still be important, as the team cannot field a full lineup without them. Nipp is the clear leader of the freshman class, with excellent handstands and beautiful form. Braley also had a clean bar routine back in the day, but without footage from her since 2015, it’s hard to put her anywhere but as an alternate. Burnside is also an option, though she does have significant handstand issues that would have to be corrected if she expects to score well in college.
As for the veterans, we expect to see everyone return. Kirsten Yee and Madison McBride are easily the top two. Both have the ability to score 9.9 and both have had their inconsistencies, so we suspect Yee will get the nod for her leadership and experience. Heltemes is more consistent but scores lower, so we expect her to be the likely choice for lead-off. Becky Rozsa should also return to contribute, as bars was her only event last season. As inconsistent as she was the majority of her first season, her last five weeks were 9.825 or higher, suggesting she is actually capable of a consistent set and that she may have simply needed time to adjust.
Some veterans who didn’t compete bars in 2017 could also make appearances. Jorgensen is a possibility, as her preseason training seems to indicate that she’s shooting to be in the all around this year. Bars isn’t her strongest event, but she could find herself in the top six regardless. The event was a strength for Madison Howlett in J.O., but she was inexplicably absent from competition last season. Whether she was injured or not remains to be seen, but she has been spotted consistently in preseason training updates, including doing some excellent bar work. If this routine can improve at the rate SUU seems to expect, she could very well end up in the lineup. Check below to see who we’d consider the Thunderbirds’ top choices on bars.
Heltemes | Burnside | Rozsa | Nipp | Madison McBride | Yee
Alternates: Braley | Jorgensen | Howlett
Beam looks like the event where the veterans are going to need the most help. The team only returns three regular contributors from last year’s beam squad, so the freshman are going to have to step up in a major way. Mary Packham is a surprise hit here: None of her other events are likely strong enough to contribute, but on beam she excels, showing uncommon precision and confidence. Nipp will also be an essential addition. Her elegant toe point and long lines should contribute steady high scores. Alyssa LaDieu is another likely specialist, with some unique skills (like this press handstand mount) and high scoring potential based on her J.O. results. Alfaro comes from beam powerhouse gym Gym-Max (the home of Kyla Ross), so it’s only natural she’ll fit into this lineup. However, it’s important to note that despite her excellent beam work, her consistency may bump her to alternate. DeFilippo, though not necessarily a beamer, has decent scoring potential and some different skills of her own, including a switch side to transverse straddle half dance series. Her consistency, too, will determine whether she makes the lineup, but she’s definitely an option for head coach Scott Bauman to consider.
The routines that SUU does return are some of its best, as all three scored 9.9 or higher in 2017. Yee is the likely anchor once again, though she does have some consistency issues. Jorgensen is our choice for lead off—she only had one fall all last season and never scored lower than a 9.725 after that mishap. Bayer occasionally got stuck in the 9.7 range, but her calm, patient demeanor should provide a good “reset button” routine mid-lineup if necessary. We also consider Howlett to be an option, despite not competing last season. Beam was a strong event for her in level 10, so if she can recapture her previous prowess, she may sneak into this lineup.
Jorgensen | Packham | Bayer | LaDieu | Nipp | Yee
Alternates: Alfaro | DeFilippo | Howlett
Floor was easily Southern Utah’s best event last season, finishing at No. 9, ahead of many Big Four conference teams like Nebraska, Kentucky and Denver. However, the team does lose many of its highest-scoring routines, including three who scored 9.925. Many of the freshmen should be able fill in those holes, though, particularly DeFilippo, who has a double front. Molly Jozwiakowski counts floor as her likeliest event, with strong front tumbling, twisting form and clean lines. She’ll have to adjust her composition to meet college requirements, but she’s been featured in many floor training clips so it’s clear the coaches are working to be able to put her in. Nipp is another strong competitor, with a surprising amount of height in her tumbling and great flexibility in her dance, while Amanda Wiltsie is someone to keep an eye on, having previously competed a front double full. However, she hasn’t really been shown in training updates, so her status at SUU is questionable.
The veterans are no slouches on floor either. Floor was the one event where Gonzalez found consistency in 2017, never falling and even reaching 9.9 once. And Jorgensen never scored below 9.8 all season, an impressive feat for a freshman. We expect them to contribute as lead off and anchor, respectively. Bayer’s lone performance on floor in 2017 was not inspiring, but her appearances in 2016 were much better. If she can get back up to that 9.7 to 9.8 range, she’d be a shoo-in for this lineup with her double Arabian. Howlett and Heltemes have both been spotted training floor in preseason updates, with Howlett looking more likely to contribute. And don’t forget about Loomis, who scored as high as 9.825 at San Jose State last season.
Gonzalez | Howlett | Nipp | Jozwiakowski | DeFilippo | Jorgensen
Alternates: Bayer | Heltemes | Loomis
The Thunderbirds haven’t had a true all arounder since Danielle Ramirez went down with injury midway through last year. That could change in 2018 as there are a few gymnasts we could see stepping into the lineup on four events. Jorgensen seems the most likely, with only bars as her questionable event and a fair amount of experience under her belt. She showed all four pieces at the team’s recent Red & White intrasquad, so we’d say it’s likely she’ll get the chance to do so in real competition at least once. Nipp is another possibility, with clean form across all four apparatus and vault her only questionable lineup. And don’t forget about Madison McBride. Though we didn’t discuss her on beam or floor, it looks as though she is training all four and used to have a strong all around set in J.O.
Overall, SUU looks to be on track to at least repeat its finish from last season. The MRGC is becoming increasingly competitive, and the freshman class should play a big part in keeping the Thunderbirds in the hunt for the conference title and easily make regionals again this season. Some higher ranked teams might want to watch their backs for this dark horse team.
Article by Caroline Medley