Maryland spent its preseason doing what many NCAA teams did when they were left stranded by a truncated COVID-19 season: getting on Zoom and working together. They explored available resources to remain motivated, bond with teammates and stay in peak form, including using milk jugs as weights to maintain strength.
The result was a well-conditioned, newly bonded team brimming with confidence, and the improvements the gymnasts made were reflected in the scoreboard, especially in their 2021 debut, a 194.875 to 193.875 victory over Penn State—the team’s first ever in PSU’s Rec Hall.
What was the difference in this year and all the ones that came before it? After all, Zoom meetings, exercising and team bonding is nothing new. In fact, one might think the disrupted year might prove to be a detriment to teams.
Head coach Brett Nelligan pinpoints two factors: a strong commitment to team building and learning new topics, and a firm, laser-like focus on strength and conditioning. If the gymnasts can’t be in the gym, they can still stay strong and prepared when they eventually go back.
Nelligan is quick to point out the team’s strength coach’s contributions. Lorenzo Tomasiello created workouts for the team over the summer and was creative with the exercise plans, encouraging conditioning with available and accessible equipment.
Tomasiello emailed each gymnast an exercise plan, and if the gymnast had any questions about the moves, Tomasiello provided a YouTube link for them to watch as he demonstrated them himself.
But strength is only one part of the equation.
It’s not uncommon at the beginning of the season to see a gymnast tired and struggling to get through their final tumbling pass cleanly. With limited training time, especially during COVID shutdowns and the later start to preseason, it was particularly difficult to build the needed endurance.
But to start 2021, the power, endurance and energy the Terps displayed on floor stood out. Big Ten Network commentator Olivia Karas noted she didn’t see a single landing deduction in Maryland’s rotation.
Nelligan praised assistant coach JJ Ferreira and volunteer assistant Morgan Ross for the impressive showing. He says they were smart about how they approached the floor lineup, with the main goal being to avoid injuries. Both Ferreira and Ross built up their student-athletes slowly and took their time. They didn’t hit the gymnasts with a long list of skills to complete. As a result, the lineup entered the season prepared. Maryland’s floor is now ranked 10th in the nation.
Ferreira believes the floor endurance exercises and in-gym conditioning has been phenomenal. He points out that the help he has received from Ross is key.
“In the corner for that third pass I could see it and everybody’s eyes and faces like, ‘I got this,’” Ferreira said. “There was no question because they knew that there was so much that went into the training of it that they just had it.”
While the team was prepared from the start, there’s also the issue of sustaining the success, as well as potential burnout.
“We decided on the motto ‘Never Satisfied,’” Ferreira said. “We decided that we’re not going to be satisfied with what we did until we can get a 50. Until we get a 50, we can’t be satisfied. Until then, we’re going to focus on every single little detail.”
All arounder and floor anchor Audrey Barber appreciates the emphasis on conditioning. “Our culture has prepared us for the upcoming season,” she said. “Strength and conditioning was really an important factor in getting our skills back, so they were telling us ‘Once we get our strength back, the skills will just come.’’
It’s not just floor where the Terps are excelling but beam as well. It’s the event where the details that stand out most, like hand flourishes or a routine’s rhythm—details evident in Maryland’s lineup. Assistant coach Erinn Dooley credits returning three seniors and two sophomores to the top six, plus the addition of a great freshman.
“The whole team has kind of come together with being extremely disciplined, being confident, and that’s a huge thing,” Dooley said. “Then we’re able to really fine-tune a lot of little things. We didn’t lose a lot last year, [so] we were able to continue to grow with one or two new routines in. They were also very confident what they were doing.”
No one has embodied that confidence more this season than sophomore Reese McClure, who floated from one skill to the next on the beam during her first meet. She received the highest score at the meet with a 9.925 and is now tied for third on the event nationally and ranks second in the Big Ten.
McClure attributes her success to the specialized beam workouts the team does every day in the gym.
“In practice, we put the pressure on each person in the lineup, which prepares you for any type of situation you might walk into this year,” she said. “I’ve been able to trust my gymnastics. At the beginning of last year, I would occasionally let my nerves take over. This year I’ve learned to control my nerves before I compete and[believe] that I can hit the routine for my team.”
That confidence also stems from the work the team put in before even returning to campus after the extended offseason.
Over the summer the Terps committed to weekly virtual meetings, which began by introducing the incoming freshmen to the existing team members, and each week after they added a new layer of enrichment. The team brought on a sports psychologist once a week, followed by a nutritionist. By the beginning of the season, the student-athletes had strengthened their relationships, built new ones with the incoming freshmen and deepened their knowledge of all aspects of the sport, not just when it came to skills or the code of points.
With everything coming together for the Terps, it’s easy to assume the success is a long time coming, starting years ago with recruiting and finally coming to fruition when those gymnasts finally arrived on campus.
Nelligan explained that the coaching staff has a vision for the program and where they think it can go. First, find incredible talent—but Nelligan emphasizes that those recruits have to share the same vision as well.
“It takes a little bit longer, but that’s OK with us,” Nelligan said. “We’re going to work at it every day. It takes a little more time, but we found a good majority of them now, and we have some great ones coming in next year.”
There are rumblings that this may be the best Maryland team in quite some time if not of all time. Nelligan doesn’t want to get too far ahead of things but is optimistic.
“Time will tell. What I told the team the night before our first meet is that I was as proud of them as any team that I’ve ever coached,” Nelligan said. “The reason is just their selflessness, their dedication, their hard work and their commitment to this season. Without that, you may not even have a season. Everything else from here on out is a bonus.”
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Article by Kelly Feng
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