New year means new faces for Aggie gymnastics

The "returning starters:" Kara Jones, Amanda Presswood, Yasmine Yektaparast, Alexis Brown and Aya Suzuki. (Mark Honbo, Athletics Communications)
Jan. 2, 2018

DAVIS, Calif. - While ringing in the new year often carries some moment of reflection – the title “Auld Lang Syne” literally translates to “old long since,” after all – the turn of the clock to 2018 has UC Davis head women’s gymnastics coach John Lavallee looking to a new crop of Aggies to lead the charge in reclaiming the conference title and returning to the NCAA regional stage.

UC Davis kicks off the 2018 season with two road meets: the annual NorCal Classic at Stanford on Monday, followed by a Mountain Pacific Sports Federation dual at Seattle Pacific on January 12. A productive fall quarter led to a strong Blue-Gold exhibition on December 9, during which the Aggies showcased their skills for an audience for the first time. Final examinations and the holiday respite also interrupted the preseason training, but Lavallee remained pleased with the work his gymnasts have completed leading up to the season-opening weekend.

“The kids did a very good job getting themselves prepared this fall quarter,” said the 2017 MPSF Coach of the Year. “We had a great intrasquad in the first part of December. We looked strong with a lot of people getting through their routines. It’s want you want to see. Recycling back after the winter break is always hard but we’ve come back really strong, and I think by the time January 8 gets here, we’ll be ready to put a strong team on the floor.”

However, what will that team look like? The program graduated yet another significant senior class last year, one that included All-MPSF honorees Katy Nogaki, Yonni Michovska and Rachel Kreager. Another standout, Miranda Holder, opted to retire after the 2017 season. That group alone represents 10 of the 24 lineup slots from last year’s conference championship meet.

“We will have five freshmen doing a lot of the work this year,” said Lavallee. “So put your seatbelts on, folks – it’s going to be a wild ride.”

Certainly, the 2018 roster has its share of familiar and accomplished faces, with senior Alexis Brown leading that crew. The animal science major captured MPSF Gymnast of the Year honors and the university’s Hubert Heitman Award as the top female student-athlete of 2016-17. Brown was the only gymnast among the six member schools to capture All-MPSF first-team distinction in all five categories last year, and she broke the 39-point barrier in the all-around six times. 

Also among the top Aggie returners are captains Amanda Presswood and Yasmine Yektaparast, both of whom claimed all-conference honors last year. Presswood, a senior in agricultural and environmental education, won her second straight All-MPSF nod on floor exercise and scored 9.80 or better six times during the year. Yektaparast, the 2016 MPSF Newcomer of the Year, earned first-team distinction on floor for the second consecutive year and claimed second-team honors on balance beam. Her strong season finish in the latter event also allowed her to claim an at-large spot at the NCAA Seattle Regional in April. 

Junior Kara Jones, a first-team All-MPSF selection on floor and two-time second-teamer on vault, looks for another solid season. She went a combined 23-for-23 in those two events last year, while scoring as high as 9.875 on balance beam. Yet another junior, Aya Suzuki, looks to continue after her breakout 2017 season. The biological systems engineering major, who scored as high as 9.825 on bars last year and finished the season with a strong 9.775 at the conference championships, owns a revamped bars routine that should yield even higher scores in 2018.

Still, Lavallee anticipates a large share of the team scoring to come from a crew of newcomers, namely redshirt freshman Alyssa Ito and true first-years Kyla Kessler, Gabby Landess, Jamie Panchak and Kelley Hebert.

The new generation (left to right): Jamie Panchak, Kyla Kessler, Shanae Oishi, Kelley Hebert, Amanda Bowers, Maya Burns and Gabby Landess. Not pictured: redshirt freshman Alyssa Ito. (Mark Honbo, Athletics Communications)

“Among the four true freshmen, every one of them can do every event. They all are very talented and very accomplished,” Lavallee said. “Alyssa will do vault, bars and beam. She will contribute quite a bit on those three events. We’re pretty excited about that. They will all see action, how much remains to be seen. There is a number of variables that go into how we use everybody.”

An unusual quirk in the schedule also plays in favor of a team full of first-time collegians, says Lavallee. Having two meets in the first week followed by a 13-day layoff from competition allows the Aggie freshmen to get a valuable breather after an immediate trial by fire. After all, a top Level 10 club gymnast has eight or nine meets spread across five months, while the collegiate season crams 12 meets into 12 weeks, not counting any NCAA postseason appearances.

“I’m really looking forward to what this group can do. It’s the most talented group that we’ve had,” Lavallee said.

Ito, originally from the Chino-based Winners Gymnastics, finished sixth at the 2014 Level 10 Junior Olympics NIT but suffered a major knee injury as a high school senior that has sidelined her from competition ever since. Kelley Hebert was a two-time JO qualifier for Edge Gymnastics – the same Dublin club that produced Jones and Yektaparast. Her floor exercise even earned preseason praise from the new college gymnastics outlet NCAA Gym News as one of the top “routines to keep an eye out for.”

Kessler qualified for the JO NIT (2013) and the JO nationals (2016) during her seven-year career with Pacific West Gymnastics in Fremont. Landess and Panchak both hail from the same Airborne Gymnastics club that has sent many Aggies its way, including current members Roxanna Agah and Sarah Liddle. Landess finished among the top 10 on floor at the Region 1 championships for four straight years. 

Panchak has a club feat that no other UC Davis gymnastics alumna can match: back-to-back top-10 finishes at the JOs in the all-around, which she did in 2016 and 2017. In comparison, Brown finished 12th at the JOs in 2010. School all-around record-holder Dani Judal tied for 12th in 2011. (Hebert placed 12th last spring.) Katie Yamamura finished 18th in 2009. Even such Aggie all-around greats like Anna Shumaker (t63rd in 2009) and Tanya Ho (52nd in 2005) did not come close to that feat. In fact, the only UC Davis alum who had one top-10 JO all-around finish was Lauren Eller, who placed t5th at the national meet in 2008. She later signed with Washington before transferring to UC Davis, where she served as a team captain in 2012.

“For our fans, they will see a lot of new faces and a lot of new stuff,” said Lavallee. “We hope we will be able to stay strong throughout the season and be at our strongest at the end. We came up a tad short at the MPSF Championship last year, and we want to fix that situation this year. Additionally, the level of talent on this team should have this team challenging for the top 36 in the country and returning to the NCAA regional.”

Monday’s NorCal Classic, featuring host Stanford plus California, San Jose State and Sacramento State, begins at 6 p.m. A live video stream is available via Pac-12 Plus at

ABOUT UC DAVIS: Providing a small-town community feel while providing a world-class academic experience, UC Davis is home to more than 37,000 students and centrally located between San Francisco, Lake Tahoe, and the Napa Valley. The No. 6-ranked public university in the nation according to the Wall Street Journal, and among the top 10 public universities nationwide according to U.S. News and World Report, UC Davis offers nearly 100 graduate programs and more than 100 academic majors across four colleges and six professional schools, ranking among the world and nation’s best in numerous disciplines, including veterinary science, agriculture, and plant and animal programs.

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