Fisk team stands for a team picture in front of a Super 16 banner

CGN Roundtable: All About the New Programs Debuting in 2024

It’s time to start looking forward to 2024! There are three new programs that begin competing next year: Clemson, Talladega, and Utica. We gathered our thoughts about their inaugural seasons.

First, which new program are you most excited about? Why?

Allison: Utica. Am I biased because it’s DIII? Absolutely. But I love the variety, unpredictability, and underdog energy that DIII brings to the table. Utica will be smashing new records left and right. And, yes, the first few years of a program sets endless records but, ahem, Lexi Castellaneta will quickly set some floor records, and Jensen Todd was a Valley gymnast in her club days, so I can even see her hanging around after this extra season. Danielle Cerminaro has OODLES of experience from varsity gymnastics to club gymnastics and as a gymnast herself. It is the perfect storm of success.

Savanna: Clemson! We’re going on two years since the announcement of the program, and we’ve essentially seen the process play out on social media from coaching announcements to practice meets and everything in between, so I’m ready to see the culmination.

Jenna: I have to say Clemson because I’m an alumna of an ACC school, so it makes me happy to finally see ACC gymnastics!

Rhiannon: What Jenna said! 

Mary Emma: Clemson for sure! As the former EAGL editor, it’s bittersweet to watch the ACC forming but definitely a positive step for college gymnastics overall. I’m excited to see how competitive it will be right off the bat.

Claire: I’m a lifelong Clemson fan and live right in the heart of Tiger Country, so I’ve gotten to witness this entire process firsthand. Excited is an understatement!

Katie: Sorry to be boring, but it’s Clemson for me too. The six gymnasts on the roster that followed head coach Amy Smith from Utah State have sat out a year of competition, and I’m expecting to see a team fired up and ready to prove itself.

Peri: The Torontonian in me is speaking, and it’s excited to see Talladega. Kiora Peart-Williams is the program’s first ranked recruit and will continue the long line of under-the-radar gymnasts from the GTA. 

Katherine: All three of these programs are really exciting to me, but I’m especially pumped for Talladega. I got to see Fisk last year at its inaugural home meet, and it was a huge show. I’m excited for another HBCU to bring that same energy to support its team.

Tara: It’s Clemson for me! Its addition also brings about the advent of the ACC in gymnastics, which is super exciting in its own right. Plus, Clemson’s such a big sports school, and I’m excited to see how the fans embrace gymnastics. 

Let’s chat about Clemson. How do you think the Tigers will fare in the ACC’s inaugural season?

Allison: I don’t think we’ll see Clemson at the bottom of the ACC nor right at the top. Then again, with a chunk of those teams exiting the EAGL, it’s going to be competitive.

Savanna: It’s going to end up somewhere in the middle. It has some talented names that transferred from Utah State, but it’s been a year since they have competed in an NCAA meet. I think it’s going to take some time to re-adjust, but I think we can expect the team in the middle for its first competitive season.

Jenna: It’s hard to say; as of now Clemson will have seven transfers on its initial roster, but only one of those competed in 2023. It will certainly help to have that experience on the team, but it’s rare for new programs to live up to their potential in their first year. Pitt has had a rough stretch lately and will have a completely new coaching staff, so I could definitely see Clemson finishing ahead of the Panthers, but it’s hard to say whether it’ll meet the level of UNC and N.C. State right away.

Mary Emma: Like Jenna said, it’s hard to say for sure since we’ve never seen it compete as a team before, but with a transfer-heavy roster, we do know that a lot of the team has already been successful in college. I still think N.C. State will be the best team in the conference since it’s returning most of the roster from last year, including the big three seniors, but I would not be surprised to see Clemson as high as second.

Claire: I saw Team Zero in exhibition back in March, and—all bias aside—it looked good. I was pleasantly surprised that nearly all of the routines were UTL (no 10.0 SV vaults at that point, but I’m guessing that will change once the freshmen arrive). I expect it to be competitive from the jump and for ACC gym’s first season to be a tight race to the top.  

Peri: I’m with everyone else on this one. Clemson has big transfer names, but aside from the core of Utah State’s gymnasts that moved with Amy Smith, we’ll have to wait and see how well roles on old teams will translate to the holes that the Tigers may face. 

Katherine: I think the Tigers will come out swinging from the jump. Sure, there will be some kinks to work out, but there’s a lot of big names on this roster that know how to compete in college or at a similarly high level. They’ll quickly adjust and find themselves close to the top of the standings.

Tara: The Tigers have a solid foundation with the transfers coming over from Utah State and the addition of solid freshmen. I can see them somewhere in the middle of the ACC standings if not pushing the top. Like others said, though, I’m not sure they can pass N.C. State or North Carolina. 

We’ve expressed concerns about Amy Smith in the past. With one non-competitive year under her belt, how do you feel about her at the helm? 

Savanna: Based on what I’ve seen, I think the gymnasts have built a solid relationship with her. The video of Lilly Lippeatt getting her hair stuck on velcro is probably my favorite piece of footage. However, social media only tells one side of the story.

Jenna: Without being close to the program it’s impossible to know what’s going on on the inside. I’m mostly focusing on supporting the gymnasts on the team and hoping that the culture in the program is positive and supportive.

Mary Emma: I’m going to echo what Jenna said and say that we can’t know for sure about anything since we aren’t connected to the program, but I’m hoping for the best.

Claire: Jenna nailed it. The team—Smith included—looked happy and laid-back at the exhibition, but we don’t know what we don’t know. I hope they’re cultivating a positive and supportive environment that allows the gymnasts and the program alike to thrive. 

Katie: We all know that we can’t see what goes on behind closed doors, so I’ll reserve judgment as an outsider looking in. As Claire has said, the team looked at ease at its exhibition, so I hope the culture is one that allows it to thrive and feel valued as both gymnasts and student athletes.

Where do you see the Tigers landing in the national rankings in 2024?

Savanna: I think with the talent Smith and Erik Lewis have brought in, we could see Clemson qualify to the postseason as a team in its first season. Anywhere in the top 40 seems plausible for 2024.

Jenna: I definitely think Clemson has a good chance of qualifying to regionals in its first season.

Mary Emma: I definitely see Clemson being on the bubble to qualify for regionals, but the cutoff has been so competitive lately that it’s hard to say if it will actually qualify. I’d be surprised if it didn’t at least contend though.

Claire: Regionals is certainly within the realm of possibility. 

Katie: I think the team will be aiming to qualify to regionals, but without any 10.0 SV vaults, it’s really hard to say if it’ll have the scores to get it over the line. 

Peri: I see them as a bubble team. My question now is how big will that bubble be?

Katherine: As I said, I’m high on Clemson and think it’ll at least be right on the bubble or very close to the 30-ish mark. 

Tara: I don’t think the regionals bubble is out of the question—I definitely think Clemson will hang around that range, somewhere in the middle of the standings. 

Alright, on to Talladega, which still has anywhere from one to three assistant coach vacancies. Any predictions who might fill the spot(s)?

Savanna: This is hard because the coaching carousel has been spinning fast this offseason. Kyana George, former volunteer assistant at Alabama, would be a likely choice because of her proximity. Zaakira Muhammad of West Virginia would be a fun choice, but I also wouldn’t be surprised to see a recent graduate take on a position. Derrian Gobourne, perhaps?

Mary Emma: Like Savanna said, I’d love to see Kyana George get one of the spots, and she seems the most likely out of all the options.

Claire: I’ve got my eye on recent Alabama grad Sania Mitchell. She’s a former teammate of head coach Aja Sims-Fletcher and has coached at Camp Isla, Brown Girls Do Gymnastics’ summer program. 

Katie: Someone like Gobourne would be so fun, and it might be handy to have someone who can choreograph such incredible floor routines.

Lela: Kyana George would be a great choice. If Margzetta Frazier has any coaching aspirations, how amazing would she be in a job like that? It probably won’t happen next season because she’s making an Olympic run, but I’m going to put Lynnzee Brown’s name out into the universe, too. 

Katherine: Kyana George would be a fun addition. Another recent, telling roster removal was Jada Glenn from Illinois. Could we see her return to the state of Alabama to join this staff?

What exciting matchups are you hoping to see for the Tornadoes?

(Like Fisk, Talladega is NAIA, so it’s not constrained by a conference competition schedule.)

Allison: Most importantly, I absolutely want a storm meet. And what about a meet with just T teams? Temple, TWU, Towson, and Talladega. But I’d love to see Alabama and Auburn, too. 

Savanna: Once upon a time on Slack, we joked about having a themed “storm” meet with Simpson and Iowa State, and I firmly support that. I also would love to see a “Best of Alabama” style tri-meet with Alabama and Auburn.

Mary Emma: With them both being HBCUs and the only two NAIA teams, I definitely want to see some duals between Fisk and Talladega (even though they would technically be considered intrasquads). Like others have mentioned, a Best of Alabama meet would be so much fun!

Claire: Iowa State. Two first-time head coaches who happen to be former Alabama All-Americans, AND their mascots are both tornadoes? Yes, please! 

Katie: Can we get one against LIU for a Sharknado?

Peri: Call me ambitious, but I’d love for a third party meet producer to give us a “New Era” meet with Clemson, Fisk, LIU, Talladega, Greenville, Simpson, and Utica. I’m choosing to ignore that it’d be a seven ring circus like MAC championship, and instead I’m looking at how this could draw casual Friday Night Heights fans to younger teams. For good measure, it could even kick off with a matinee session of Greenville vs. Simpson men’s gymnastics. 

Katherine: I love Peri’s New Era idea! I also would love the Tornadoes compete at an SEC program right off the bat, be it Alabama or some other close one.

Tara: Obviously the Fisk matchup will be exciting, with both of them being HBCUs. I’m also hoping to see it schedule meets with the other new teams, especially the likes of Simpson, Greenville, and Utica. I don’t have a specific opponent in mind for this part, but I’d love to see some form of meet like Fisk did last year with Michigan and Denver to showcase its gymnastics in front of a larger crowd.

We’ve seen two HBCUs announce new programs in back-to-back years. Do you think we’ll continue to see growth in HBCU gymnastics?

Savanna: Absolutely! I think the growth of the sport—in part of the work of Brown Girls Do Gymnastics—has been a catalyst for Fisk and Talladega, and it’s only going to continue.

Rhiannon: 100%. With more representation at the highest levels of gymnastics, I hope Black gymnasts continue to inspire more Black girls to try and excel in the sport. I love that they now have a choice to compete and attend a school where they can study with, learn from, and work out with others that look like them. 

Mary Emma: For sure! Especially seeing a high-profile gymnast like Morgan Price commit to an HBCU, I think it will make other HBCUs more interested in adding a team.

Jenna: I certainly hope so! It’s been clear for years that the gymnastics community was in need of HBCU programs. Seeing Talladega start a program so soon after Fisk has me optimistic that more will follow.

Claire: Absolutely. BGDG has done a phenomenal job with its marketing and growth initiatives, especially by having Camp Isla at HBCUs so they can see the potential firsthand. 

Katie: Rhiannon is on the money: With greater representation at the highest levels of the sport, I can’t see anything other than growth in this area of college gymnastics.

Lela: Absolutely. HBCU teams are getting top recruits and name-brand coaches. I saw Fisk perform last year at a quad meet at Rutgers, and it had more fans there than the home team or the other two away teams (one of which was Michigan!). People are eager to see these teams perform, eager to have the opportunities, and eager for representation in the sport.
Katherine: Definitely! I think Deion Sanders’ time as head coach of Jackson State football, while it may now be over, really sparked some life into the already passionate world of HBCU athletics, and we’re still seeing the effects of that. Fisk was just the beginning of that energy coming to gymnastics, and I’d love to see an even “bigger” HBCU like JSU or Florida A&M next. 

Tara: I think the floodgates opened when Fisk started its team, and we’ll see more down the line. 

Last but not least, Utica! How do you see the Pioneers faring in the NCGA rankings next year?

Allison: Coming from Western New York and doing gymnastics in Rochester growing up, Valley Gymnastics was always a phenomenal program with excellent coaching and not a whisper of anything untoward. I know Cerminaro is a new owner, but after her announcement of head coach for Utica, I only heard more good things. She has a history of putting the person before the gymnast (not unlike another storied and now-retired DIII gymnastics coach). I think Utica is going to be a major threat. It has two Brockport alumni ready to bring experience to the new team. Ithaca and Brockport have been dancing in No. 1 and No. 2 in the East, and I think Utica is going to make things interesting. I literally cannot wait. Utica is recruiting far and wide, and the skills, the difficulty, the clean gymnastics are going to impress. I am already swooning. I promised I would keep this under 7,500 words, but here we are.

Savanna: Allison’s excitement for Utica has made me ready to see how this team fares. Looking at the skills and the names Cerminaro has brought in for the first season makes me think this team could be in contention for an NCGA title from day one.  

Mary Emma: I honestly don’t know too much about the program outside of what I’ve heard from Allison, but I think  it will be competitive in its first season.

Jenna: Out of all the new programs that have emerged in recent seasons, Utica feels to me like the one most organized and best poised for success. Don’t ask me why I think that (perhaps it’s just because of Allison), but the excitement around the program and the immediate recruiting success has me very optimistic.
Claire: It’s hard not to root for this program! It seems to have all the necessary tools to make waves this season. 

Katherine: Like Clemson’s, Utica’s roster is definitely capable of coming in hot quickly, which I think it’s poised to do after getting its feet on the ground within the first couple of meets.

Tara: Allison’s chatter on our CGN Slack makes me optimistic for how the Pioneers will fare. They’ve already secured some transfers, and based on what I’ve heard, naming Cerminaro as the team’s head coach seems like a great move. 

We’ve already seen some stellar leo content. Thoughts? 

Allison: I’d like one of each of Utica’s leos, thank you. The seamless color ombre? Capitalizing on the blue and orange? They’re all flawless. I am DELIGHTED about the moose. Take note, Ithaca. Actually, I’ll finally donate as an alumna to Ithaca if they put the Textor Fish on a leo. It’s a fish, don’t at me.

Savanna: For a Division III program, the leos have been outstanding. I’m a sucker for an ombre leotard (if you’ve read my rankings, you know this), so that one has to be my favorite of what we have seen so far. 

Mary Emma: I love what we’ve seen so far! If it continues the trend, I think Utica will be one of my new favorite leotard teams.

Claire: Utica’s set the leo bar really freakin’ high, and I can’t wait to see what else it comes up with. Clemson’s training leos have been fabulous, so I’m expecting its competition leo game to be even stronger. Talladega has a fantastic color scheme and mascot; I can’t wait to see what it comes up with!

Katie: I agree with Savanna. We know that the leotard budget for Division III programs can be fairly measly compared to a school where you can do your leotard reveal in a tiger habitat, but what we’ve seen from Utica so far is really classy. I love an orange leotard, too, so I’ve got high hopes for Clemson—let’s wait and see!

Katherine: Like the call of the question says, we’ve already seen some stellar designs, so there’s nowhere to go but up. Bring on the orange!

Tara: If every leo is like that, it would be amazing! The ombre is already a win in my book, and the rest of the leo is just as stellar. We know Division III programs often face tighter budget constraints with leos, and I’m excited to see what it continues to do with its leo budget. 

To wrap up, let’s play everyone’s favorite game. If you were the gymnastics program fairy for a day and could add a program at any institution, where would it be?

Allison: I have a long wishlist! Boston College, Boston University, bring MIT’s program back, Syracuse, any of the UMASS schools, Notre Dame, RIT, Buffalo State, and University at Buffalo.

Savanna: I need more meets to go to in Louisiana that are not four hours away. Grambling State was interested once upon a time in adding an HBCU program, and I’d still love to see that. The MRGC is going to need another team to be a sustainable conference; Weber State attracts a lot of all-star cheer athletes, but if it added a team, it could attract additional talent.

Rhiannon: The University of Virginia and Virginia Tech! With the ACC’s growing gymnastics conference, it’s a natural fit, and both schools have strong athletic programs that could support and recruit talent from within and outside the region. 

Mary Emma: So many! With conferences changing so much in the next few years, we’re going to have a lot of weird numbers of teams in conferences (with 11 in the Big Ten, seven in the Pac-12 and nine in the SEC). I would add teams to those conferences to even things out. For the SEC, I would love to see Vanderbilt or Tennessee add a team, mainly because I have family who are alumni of both schools. With USC joining the Big Ten along with UCLA, adding a gymnastics team would create a fantastic rivalry between the two teams and add an in-conference competition for UCLA that isn’t so far to travel to. For the Pac-12, I would love to see Oregon add a team since it already has an A&T team.

Jenna: Besides more ACC schools, I’d really like to see states without any college gymnastics programs be the next to add one. Delaware, Hawaii, Kansas, Maine, Mississippi, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, and Wyoming are all lacking teams!

Claire: I already got my wish with Clemson, so I’ll go with Florida State and Texas Southern. More ACC, more HBCUs, and more programs in Texas, please!  

Katie: Three NFL games will be played in London, England, in the 2023 regular season. It’s a magic program fairy right? So I want to have an NCAA team at a British University. Loughborough University would be a top contender. It’s connected to over 100 Olympic and Paralympic athletes, including World Record holding swimmer Adam Peaty and would have finished 15th in the medal table at Tokyo 2020 if it was a country. We’ll need some fairy dust for the transatlantic flights each weekend for meets, but a girl can dream!

Lela: I’m with Mary Emma in wanting to see a team at Vandy or Tennessee, both in my home state and an easy fit into SEC competition and rivalries. I would also like to see how those teams work around some unfortunate colors for leos.
I am an NYU graduate and I think that if they wanted to add a sport, living in the city would be a draw for those athletes and they could build an interesting program. The downside is that no one else in their DIII conference has a gymnastics team. However, given LIU’s struggles, I’d like to see a program that actually is in NYC and allows the gymnasts all of the benefits city living confers, plus a built-in fan base and fun purple leos. 

Peri: If I’m allowed to REALLY push limits, I’m adding Western University to the MAC. This school has a ridiculous athletics budget, established recruiting power, and more fans than it knows what to do with in London, Ontario. Even more importantly, it attracts a disproportionately large number of level 10s to cheer for arguably Canada’s strongest university team—but in this universe they have gymnastics instead. 

Katherine: I’ve spent the past three years living in the south, and coming from the north, I’ve been really in awe of just how much of an institution college athletics are down here. While adding another school to the SEC might just be letting “the rich get richer,” I’d just love to see more of the passion that LSU and Florida have at a home meet. The SEC or at least its general footprint would be the best place to do it. Of course I, too, am an ACC (law) school alum, so I think Clemson will carry that torch nicely, as would my beloved Florida State.

Tara: The obvious and overdone answer is one of the big Texas schools, but I’m going to look past that here. As a Colorado native, I’d love to see a team at the University of Colorado as a complement to Denver’s team. 

READ THIS NEXT: Florida Gifts First HBCU Team Fisk Leotards, Spring Floor

Article by Allison Freeman, Savanna Whitten, Jenna King, Rhiannon Franck, Mary Emma Brambilla, Claire Billman, Katie Couldrey, Lela Moore, Peri Goodman, Katherine Weaver, and Tara Graeve

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