When the 2021 EAGL preseason poll was released in December, the Towson gymnastics team had some feelings about the results.
The Tigers were coming off a successful 2020 campaign in which they recorded two top 10 team scores in program history and achieved numerous accolades, like rare wins over North Carolina and George Washington.
“We were hitting our stride last year and finally proving to ourselves what we could do,” head coach Jay Ramirez said “We felt good and like we were on a roll.”
And yet, as they prepared for the 2021 season, the Tigers found themselves sitting just one spot above last place in the preseason poll.
“We said, ‘Is anyone watching our Instagram stories? Has anyone even seen our videos?’ It became a running joke in the gym. ‘Oh, seventh in the conference,'” junior Emerson Hurst said. “We all wanted to prove everyone wrong.”
As an oft-repeated Michael Jordan quote goes, the team took that personally.
Using the slight of the preseason poll as motivation, the Tigers mounted an even more successful 2021 run. They cracked the top 10 scores in program history several more times, including a third place finish at the EAGL championship that punched their ticket to regionals for the first time since 2000.
With a run that historic, it’s got to be a big topic of conversation in the gym, right? Not really, Hurst said.
“We’re just doing our job,” she said. “We’re not doing anything special, or it may not seem like it until we look at the numbers and say, ‘Wow.'”
The Tigers have taken a meet-by-meet approach to their unprecedented season, an approach inspired in part by the uncertainty of the pandemic. After every meet they “talk about the good, the bad, and the ugly, then move on,” sophomore Camille Vitoff explained. “Every day is a gift.”
Like every other college gymnastics team, Towson struggled with the sudden impact of COVID-19. Maryland had stricter protocols from the start, so the summer looked wildly different for different team members. Luckily, though, the resilient mindset was something that had been instilled by Towson’s coaching staff from the outset of their tenure at the school.
“Adapt. Adjust. Reset,” Ramirez said. “As soon as [assistant coach Ashley Sauer and I] got the jobs at Towson, we wanted to promote those values in our culture.”
“Adjusting” meant finding unique solutions from bedroom Achilles rehab (yes, really) to training in completely a new setting. Towson’s facilities remained shut down through the start of the 2020-21 school year, so several team members independently coordinated working out at a club gym 20 minutes from the school.
“You obviously want to be training at the gym two minutes from your house, but we made it work,” Vitoff said. “It was hard and scary, but at the end of the day, we were lucky to be there and grateful for what we had.”
That helped the team get through tough times like the summer and the month of November, during which time team activities were mostly paused due to further COVID issues. Following that, the coaching staff made it clear to the team that December was going to be one of the most difficult months they’d ever have in terms of hard work and getting back on track. Needless to say, the team rose to the challenge.
“They’ve stayed with us mentally all year,” Ramirez said. “We tell them to trust when we need to pull you back, we will, and when we need to push you, we will.”
Ramirez emphasized the importance of recognizing gymnasts’ individual needs in communicating this message. As a small but powerful coaching staff, he and Sauer collaborate tightly on “every decision” concerning the team.
“We try to read the vibe of the team every day and tailor our workouts based on how they’re feeling,” he said.
Ramirez recalled a tough practice where the team clearly wasn’t itself. “You can either choose to curl up and go in the corner or step up; figure out which gymnast you want to be.” The team clearly figured it out, as they hit above 196 the very next day.
While Hurst and Vitoff both expressed on how special that first 196-plus meet in 2021 was, they also commented on how hitting that mark is no longer a goal; rather, it’s a bare minimum expectation. That in itself is a huge improvement for Towson.
“Now we know if we hit certain numbers on the earlier events, we’ll be on track for that score,” Vitoff said. “It’s just a matter of hitting every event and doing our job.”
“Our coaches knew we were good, but to actually see the numbers to prove it, we said, ‘Oh, we really are that good,'” Hurst added.
It’s moments like these that make this strange season worth it despite the changes. Gone are season staples like team dinners, hotel study sessions and of course, fans in the stands. But the team has tried to remain thankful for what they have. “We treated every meet like it was our last,” Vitoff said. “A COVID outbreak could have hit at any time and shut us down for the rest of the season. The fact that we’ve gotten through it is crazy.”
In addition to the team’s success, the 2021 season has brought individual accolades galore. Freshman standout Allison Zuhlke’s namesake vault made its first NCAA appearance, and Vitoff debuted Towson’s first ever Yurchenko one and a half vault.
“I started upgrading it this year when [Ramirez] suggested it,” she recalled. “I knew no [Towson gymnast] had ever competed that vault before, so the fact that he saw that potential in me was great motivation.”
In addition, en route to becoming the EAGL beam champion last weekend, Hurts shattered Towson’s program record with a 9.975 earlier this season.
Recalling the moment, she said, “I normally don’t think about sticking my dismount, but I knew this was the best routine I’d ever done in competition, and I knew I had to do it.”
While the lack of fans has meant lack of exposure for moments like this, Hurst remarked on how it has been beneficial to an extent when it comes to instilling confidence.
“We love our fans, but the [lack of] added worry of stressing about messing up in front of them is actually nice,” she said. “I remember turning around while cheering on floor at one meet and seeing no fans and being completely surprised because I’d forgotten.”
Even if fans can’t see these milestones in person, the team’s improved social media presence has helped Towson get exposure as a program. Sauer has taken the lead and helped grow Towson’s Instagram follower count from 2,000 when she got the job to 13,000 now. It’s this presence that helped put routines like Hurst’s 9.975 and Zuhlke’s unique vault on the map.
It’s clear that Towson has turned heads as a program, but the Tigers aren’t done yet. They were assigned to the Morgantown regional, where they will compete against California, BYU and Ohio State in the second round. The Tigers have not advanced as a team to regionals since 2000; this is a huge meet for them. But as Ramirez said, that history isn’t the top thing on their minds.
“We don’t harp on it in the moment,” he said. “But no matter how it went, it’s certainly nice to talk about afterwards.”
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