Jan. 3, 2012
DAVIS, Calif. - John Lavallee has walked this road before.
In the early going of the 2008 season, the UC Davis head women's gymnastics coach fielded a squad of one senior, one junior and 10 sophomores or freshmen. Michelle Kulovitz was the only senior in the lineup during the season opener, as Carrie Lujan and Andi Dolinsky were sidelined with injuries.
Entering the 2012 season, which begins this Friday at Arizona State, Lavallee's roster has only four gymnasts who competed for UC Davis two years ago: senior co-captain Erika Van Dyke and juniors Michelle Ho, Taryn West and Katie Yamamura. Co-captain Lauren Eller, the only other fourth-year student, redshirted that season due to injury. Transfer Leah Housman, one of the four juniors, was still at Cal State Fullerton. The remainder of the roster consists of sophomores and freshmen. Both Van Dyke and Eller ended the fall quarter workouts with injuries, making their early-season status somewhat questionable.
So how did the 2008 team end up? The Aggies caught fire midway in the season, improving to a season-best 194.700 to capture the program's first Mountain Pacific Sports Federation title. UC Davis won or shared individual event championships in all four events plus the all-around. The freshman and sophomore classes, which accounted for four of those titles, would go on to enjoy some of the most decorated careers in school history. And that score at the conference meet remains the school record.
Although Lavallee is too process-oriented to fixate on an actual numerical score, he would like to see this year's team follow a similar path: the team goal is to capture a third straight MPSF championship (and the fourth in five years), setting a season-best score in that final meet. Incidentally, the 2008 conference meet was held at UC Davis' own floor at the Pavilion. The 2012 MPSF Championships take place on March 24 at - you guessed it - the Pavilion.
In each of the past two seasons, the Aggies have compiled the conference's highest regional-qualifying score from start to finish, then delivered the winning score at the championship meet. In 2010, the team entered the MPSF meet with a 193.305 RQS and scored a 194.150. Last year, UC Davis led the league with a 193.030 RQS before edging Air Force with a 192.975 team effort at the championships. Lavallee hopes for more of the same this year.
"Our goal is to maintain our position in the MPSF throughout the course of the season and at the championship meet," said the three-time MPSF Coach of the Year. "We will have to do well in managing ourselves to get to the point where we win that meet."
In achieving that objective, the fall practice season provided strong indications that the Aggies enter the reason in good shape... literally. "This group has certainly been at a higher conditioning level, doing a good job becoming stronger, faster and more powerful," Lavallee said. "As I tell my team every year, their level of fitness on January 1 is what dictates the whole season. Going for 12 weeks straight is very demanding. You have to prepare your body for what you're asking it to do, and this has done a very good job preparing."
However, while the Aggies may be physically ready for the season, Lavallee acknowledges that the biggest challenge for this season will be preparing his relatively young team for the mental rigors of collegiate gymnastics. Club gymnastics is much more of an individual endeavor while college gymnastics is more of a team sport, according to Lavallee.
"When you're in club and you go to the region championships, you turn around, raise your hand to the judges and think, `all I have to do is catch this Tkachev and I'm going to nationals.' In college, when you turn around to raise your hand, you see 17 other faces saying, `you need to catch this Tkachev.' College has a whole different set of stressors, but eventually it becomes a very motivating stressor. For a lot of kids, it can take a while to figure out how to use it to perform at a higher level. But we tell the team that no individual will find success until the team finds success. That has been true since I started coaching and it was true before then."
Fortunately for Lavallee, he has an excellent crew of veterans who help cultivate such an environment in the program. Although slowed by an ankle injury during the team's December intrasquad meet, Van Dyke looks to finish her outstanding Aggie career. The 2010 balance beam champion captured all-conference honors on both beam and floor last year, narrowly missing a berth as the individual beam qualifier to the NCAA Corvallis Regional. She amassed a season RQS of 9.735 on the event while scoring 9.800 or better on floor four times.
Yamamura has bounced back to the form that resulted in two 39-point all-around scores, earned four All-MPSF awards and qualified her to the NCAA regional in 2010. She showed a glimpse of it after her return from injury late in the season last year, most notably with a school-record 9.900 on vault at the conference championship. Yamamura has installed a new dismount on both bars and beam heading into this season.
Ho enjoyed a breakout season as a sophomore in 2011, earning All-MPSF honors on both uneven bars and floor exercise. She led the conference on the latter event, compiling a 9.825 RQS and nearly qualifying for the NCAA region meet. However, she lost the tiebreaker to Sacramento State's Kailey Hansen on the final day of the regular season. Ho has added a new vault to her repertoire and, according to Lavallee, could see action as an all-arounder in her third season.
Sophomore Anna Shumaker earned All-MPSF distinction on vault, scoring the conference's highest RQS of 9.780. She finished second at the conference meet, qualified for the NCAA regional and earned one of her team's Outstanding Contributions awards, then underwent shoulder surgery in the offseason. To her enormous credit, Shumaker has made a strong comeback from the surgery and looks to contribute on vault and beam again.
West competed on floor exercise in all 11 meets last season and has appeared in the vault lineup 10 times in her career. She looks to continue that role as a solid two-event performer in 2011. Madeline Kennedy, who appeared mostly on vault as a freshman last year, looks to contribute on as many as three events this season. Eller, another two-event performer, has the most tenuous status among the upper classes due to her injury battles. She enjoyed her best Aggie meet at home against Cal last year, posting 9.725 on beam and 9.700 on floor.
Housman bridges the gap of being both a program newcomer and an experienced collegiate gymnast, having transferred from Cal State Fullerton before the 2011-12 academic year. She helped the Titans mostly as a beam specialist, scoring a 9.650 at the Western Athletic Conference championships and a 9.775 against UCLA. Look for Housman to contribute both in that event and on floor exercise.
Among the freshman, NLI signee and Murrieta, Calif. native Kayla DeFrancesco looks to live up to her accolades at the Southern California Elite Gymnastics Academy. She won the state title on floor then finished second at the region meet in 2010, her second of three Level 10 seasons at SCEGA. "Kayla will see action in the all-around consistently throughout the year: she has done a great job earing a spot in every lineup," said Lavallee. "She has made some good changes with her gymnastics and she's in a good place to start the season."
Lisa Wiktorski, originally from Huntington Beach, Calif. and an alumna of New Hope Academy and Team OC, will provide her skills as an uneven bars specialist. Armed with a giant full gienger, her routine has the potential to wow both judges and spectators alike. "Lisa has no fear," Lavallee said. "She takes that thing and pops herself a couple of feet above the bar."
Tiana Montell, who hails from Hilo, Hawaii, advanced to the Junior Olympics nationals three times as a member of Pantheon School of Gymnastics. She also made the NIT in 2009. "Tiana has been a great pick-up for us," said Lavallee. "She has really increaed her gymnastics since coming to UC Davis. She made a lot of changes to improve herself. She'll be in three events, maybe even four, over the course of the season."
Lavallee's team offered another strong season indicator in early December at the annual intrasquad meet, hitting 26 of 32 routines. "We did a very good job at getting ourselves prepared, putting in the effort in conditioning to get our fitness level up, to be strong, powerful and flexible. It really showed on intrasquad day," he said.
The 2012 schedule features many of the usual suspects in addition to conference foes Air Force, Alaska Anchorage and Seattle Pacific. Former MPSF members San Jose State and Sacramento State show up together on both January 15 and March 16, while the Hornets compete with the Aggies for Causeway Cup points on four total occasions. One relative rarity, however, is the frequent presence of Pac-12 Conference schools. In addition to Friday's opener at Arizona State, UC Davis will travel to Stanford on January 15, meet up with California in back-to-back meets in early February, host Oregon State on February 10 and Arizona on March 2. OSU checked in at No. 7 in the 2012 preseason coaches' poll while Stanford appeared a spot below at No. 8.
Friday's opener against Arizona State begins at 7 p.m. local time (6 p.m. Pacific) at Wells Fargo Arena. The Gym Devils return both NCAA individual regional qualifiers in senior Beaté Jones (all-around) and senior Madison Snowden (floor).
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