By Maria Evangelou, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - With its final meet of the regular season this weekend, the Penn State women's gymnastics team is seeing its hard work pay off in preparation for Big Fives.
"The quad meets we've been competing in the past few meets have symbolized the energy that we're going to have," head coach Sarah Brown said. "Being on the floor with four teams has a whole different vibe to it, and I can even speak back to the double duals as a way to help prepare us for post-season going into the Big Fives and Big Tens."
In addition to three consecutive season-best scores, Brown has spent the past year really getting to know her team and watching them progress into the cohesive squad they are becoming.
"I think at the beginning of the year we were still trying to figure out all of the athletes, and each week we were doing something different and we were making progress, but it still hadn't come together yet," Brown said. "Multiple times I've said 'this was our most complete meet, but I know we have more in us' and then I say it again. It's been great to watch them grow."
The key to Brown is observing the gymnasts and seeing what needs work and where their heads are at.
"We check in with where our energy level is after each event, whether it's good or bad, and then channeling the energy that we need moving to the next event, because one doesn't depend upon the other," Brown said. "I think for some of the athletes that's helped them to break it down a little bit, and makes the meet feel not so big or overwhelming, but helped them realize that in this moment, 'this is the energy I need.' Once we started zoning in on that, I think right around the GW meet is when things started to take off for us."
Penn State's meet against George Washington on February 24 marked the team's second meet of the season tallying a score of above 196.000-or-higher. The meet also consisted of individual season highs for Nittany Lion gymnasts on vault, floor, and all-around.
"I think we've always known our potential, but it's cool to see that every single week we've gotten a little bit better," junior Gianna LaGuardia said. "It's definitely building our confidence, so we can go into Big Fives feeling pretty confident."
Against Ohio State on February 9, LaGuardia finished third on vault with a season-high 9.875 after taking some time off from competing to nurse a foot injury.
"I think confidence has a huge thing to do with it," LaGuardia said. "It means a lot to do really well in one meet, and when I came back from an injury, it wasn't even muscle memory, it was just believing that you have it. At this point in the season, you just have to know that you have it in you. The whole team's confidence is so helpful."
"Gigi really hit her stride," Brown said. "She had an ankle injury and was out for a couple of meets on vault and we were only able to put up five. Having her back has brought so much confidence to the lineup, just knowing that she's a great vaulter and taking the pressure off of the five lineup. She loves competing for this team and she's doing an amazing job right now. She's giving everything I could've asked for."
Another factor in composure in competition and a confidence boost, a few switch-ups of rotations and routines has helped keep the gymnasts on their toes and ready for various potential set-ups they may face.
"We pretty much have had every rotation possible right now except for starting on floor," LaGuardia said. "That's really nice going into Big Five and Big Tens, so we're prepared for pretty much any scenario at this point."
This weekend's Big Five Meet will consist of a bye rotation, meaning the Nittany Lions will experience an extra rotation where they won't be competing. The five rotations instead of their usual four will be a new experience for the team this season. Another change the Penn State squad has integrated into their routine is an adjustment in the beam lineup, now leading with two freshman followed by two sophomores.
"You never know what you're going to get with freshman," Brown said. "Obviously Lauren [Bridgens] and Alissa [Bonsall] had a really great start to their season, and both of them have had bumps along the way, but they're in a really good place right now. Kourtney [Chinnery] has been consistent for us on vault which is great, and I couldn't be prouder of Ava [Verdeflor] for stepping up in the beam lineup in the middle of the season. It's not often that you change the lead-off on beam, and that you put a brand new person in in the middle of the year. We are a young team, but I think the more they compete with each other, the more confident they get."
The Nittany Lions have built from a 194.275 in the season-opener to a season-best, a 196.675, against BYU last weekend.
"With every meet, we've gotten better with our scores, and a lot of that is coming from our mentality in the gym," sophomore Kristen Politz said. "Not just trusting yourself, but believing in your teammates, and that's shown in every meet. Everyone has had each other's back and we've had incredible scores individually and that's created better team scores each weekend. Ultimately, we've gotten more confident getting out there and giving it our all."
comes down to confidence for the whole team," LaGuardia agrees. "Seeing what we
do in the gym finally paying off in a meet is great. Some days you have a bad
day in the gym, and that weekend you see where it's coming from. The work in
the gym definitely shows."
Even with a couple of consecutive wins, the Nittany Lions know they are capable of reaching higher. They see their challenges ahead, and approach them with unity and confidence.
"Post-season is definitely different than
regular season, but if you try not to make it seem bigger than it is you can
stay more focused," Politz said. "But the excitement makes it that much more
powerful in the post-season, so I'm super excited to experience it for the
second time and hopefully let my nerves go a little bit more than I probably
did my freshman year now that I've had that experience."
Against BYU, Politz achieved her personal season-best on uneven bars, but isn't letting the recent accomplishment get in the way of her focus.
"If anything, we just take the confidence we've had from that meet, and we can definitely improve on floor and vault for sure," Politz said. "That momentum that we built on our bar rotation was incredible, so hopefully we can keep going up from that. Ultimately, it was a really great meet for us, and especially a meet so far away with less fans. Being back in our home area should be super exciting."