Aggie gymnasts launch 2016 season on Sunday

Jan. 4, 2016

DAVIS, Calif. - Now in his 10th year at the UC Davis women’s gymnastics helm, head coach John Lavallee sets but one primary goal for his Aggie team each year: to carve out its own place in program history.

“I tell every team that every year is different,” said the five-time Mountain Pacific Sports Federation Coach of the Year. “You have a class of folks who are leaving and a brand-new class coming in. You have classes who get older, wiser and more mature. You have to write your own story every year.

Sure, the main narrative for 2016 features a handful of lofty subplots — namely, to win the MPSF team title, qualify for the NCAA regional, and achieve the program’s highest-ever national ranking. UC Davis has hit at least two of these targets in each of the six previous seasons. The Aggies won four straight conference championships from 2010 to 2013, then regained the crown last year thanks to a 195.300 at the MPSF meet in Alaska. UC Davis has sent at least two gymnasts to the NCAA postseason every year since 2010, including the entire team in 2014, plus four qualifiers last season.

In 2010, the Aggies climbed to No. 39 in the national rankings, posting a then-record 193.885 regional-qualifying score. Three years later, the team cracked the 194-point RQS plateau for the first time, compiling a 194.780 average. Then in 2014, UC Davis amassed a 195.260 RQS, good for 34th in the nation and the team trip to the NCAA Fayetteville Regional.

I tell every team that every year is different. You have to write your own story every year.
Head coach John Lavallee

Last year, the Aggies fell just shy of their predecessors: a 39th-ranked RQS of 195.065. However, in many ways, they outperformed that historic 2014 season. A team total of 196.900 and a 49.250 on vault set both school and MPSF records. The 195.325 at Cal on March 8 set a UC Davis standard for a road meet. Seven of the eight best vault scores and five of the top 10 beam totals took place in 2015, as did individual benchmarks on vault (both Tiana Montell and Katy Nogaki), uneven bars (Kala DeFrancesco), floor exercise (Stephanie Stamates) and all-around (Dani Judal).

“If you had a great year last year, that’s awesome. If you didn’t have the kind of the year you would have liked, then it’s a clean slate,” Lavallee said.

Fueling the veteran coach’s optimism was a strong fall practice season and an encouraging Blue-Gold intrasquad meet, an increasingly popular event in which the team first showcases its routines to the public. The Aggies had nearly 50 total routines, including 14 on floor, hitting all but six. While certainly pleased with that batting average, Lavallee was more impressed with the way his gymnasts conducted themselves as a unit.

“For me, that’s really the best sign,” said Lavallee. “We can fix your double back fairly easily. But having that team cohesiveness, where everybody understands what needs to be done, is really the key.”

A strong fall practice season also lends comfort and confidence to a program that graduated a strong senior class in 2015. Montell won seven All-MPSF awards in her career, including three as a senior captain last year. She twice tied the school vault record of 9.900 and broke the 39-point barrier in the all-arounder six times in her last two seasons. Lisa Wiktorski, also an Aggie co-captain, enjoyed a fine career as a bars specialist. She led the MPSF in the event as a junior, while her third-place 9.800 at last year’s conference championships provided a major turning point for UC Davis en route to its team title.

2016 seniors Jamie Yamashita, Taylor Baron, Dani Judal and Stephanie Stamates. (Mark Honbo, Athletics Communications)

DeFrancesco and beam specialist Cassandra Quebral also provided the invaluable combination of high performance and rock-steady consistency. DeFrancesco, another seven-time All-MPSF honoree, finished the year having hit 38 of her 40 total routines. Her 9.925 on bars in the March 13 home dual with Washington tied a UC Davis mark not equaled since 2004. Quebral, who had just two lineup appearances prior to 2015, scored 9.800 or better six times in a final season to earn her first All-MPSF nod.

So how does Lavallee plan on replacing that foursome? The answer: he doesn’t. Again, Lavallee’s charge to his team is to write its own story, and not to attempt to reboot last year’s. So the real question, he says, is “how do you make a team and create an environment that was better than it was last year? With this particular team, there are a lot of folks who will step up and fill in.”

For example, of the seven UC Davis gymnasts who earned All-MPSF awards in 2015, four will don the blue and gold leos in 2016. Senior Dani Judal assembled one of the finest seasons by any Aggie — quite a feat, given the program’s history. She won all-conference honors on vault, bars, beam and the all-around; set program bests for the all-around in both a home (39.450) and road (39.275) meet; and placed 5th at the NCAA Berkeley Regional. Judal’s 9.875 on beam won a share of the conference title and narrowly missed the school record of which she holds a one-fourth share.

Team co-captain Stephanie Stamates captured All-MPSF accolades on floor for a third straight year, and on beam for a second. She tied the school floor record of 9.950 in the home dual with UW, matching a standard last hit by Tiffany Chan in 2004. In all, Stamates scored 9.800-plus 13 times last year (eight times on floor, five on beam) to raise her career total to 38. With 12 more, she will surpass Cal Aggie Athletic Hall of Famer Ericka Ruelas for the most 9.8s in program history.

Junior Katy Nogaki tied Montell for the MPSF lead on vault at 9.850, tied her own school record in the event in consecutive meets against George Washington (Feb. 8) and Seattle Pacific (Feb. 13), finished second at the MPSF Championships, and represented UC Davis at the region meet in Berkeley. She also expanded her repertoire to contribute on both beam and floor during the year. Alexis Brown rated among the conference’s top freshmen last year, earning All-MPSF on both vault and beam, while garnering conference Newcomer of the Week plaudits on three occasions. Brown’s rookie season started carefully due to an offseason injury, but she blossomed into a top all-arounder by the second half. Her 39.250 in the Washington meet stands as the highest ever by an Aggie freshman.

Add to this mix the progress of co-captain Taylor Baron, who emerged on vault, beam and floor last year; plus the versatile senior Jamie Yamashita, who has contributed on bars, vault and floor throughout the year. Junior Yonni Michovska competed in all 12 meets on vault and bars, scoring as high as 9.800 and 9.825 in those events, respectively. Another third-year, Rachel Kreager, enters what will technically count as a redshirt sophomore year. After gracing UC Davis with a clutch beam performance in lieu of Anna Shumaker at the 2014 MPSF Championships, Kreager sat out 2015 due to injury. She will vie for action in a deep beam roster while her new dismount on bars will provide much-needed firepower on that apparatus.

In addition to Brown, the entire second-year class will give the Aggies some pop in every event. Amanda Presswood hit 10-for-11 on floor exercise last year, usually as the team’s leadoff hitter in the lineup. Miranda Holder saw limited action in 2015 due to a previous injuries, but Lavallee credits her as one of the team’s most consistent performers on bars this fall. Jordan Helgesen also enjoyed a strong preseason on bars. She came off the bench to score a 9.725 at Sacramento State in her collegiate debut last January, and looks to become a regular in that key event.

Finally, UC Davis features a strong first-year group. Roxanna Agah, a walk-on from Airborne Gymnastics, has already put herself in position to see lineup action this year. Aya Suzuki, a Junior Olympic qualifier from the same San Mateo club as Michovska, Kreager and Holder, looks ready to offer solid performances on both bars and beam. Yasmine Yektaparast and Kara Jones entered the Aggie program as highly anticipated prospects from the same Edge Gymnastics club in Dublin. Each has twice qualified for J.O. Nationals or the NIT. Yektaparast won the beam at the 2014 NIT while Jones finished among the top five on floor at the national meet in both 2012 and 2013.

“They really have had one of the best fall seasons of any freshman class, even among those in recent years,” said Lavallee. “We’re pretty excited about what they’re going to do to help us out.”

As Sunday’s opener looms closer on the calendar, the team’s continued progress on vault and bars will provide indicators for the Aggies’ overall success. New rule changes will affect those two events in particular. On vault, the Yurchenko layout full performed by almost the entire UC Davis lineup (except for Yektaparast, who competes with a layout Kasamatsu) will now start at 9.95 rather than its previous 10.0 value. Lavallee does not foresee this having a major effect in terms of ranking, as most of the programs with whom UC Davis competes will find themselves in a similar predicament. ““I think we have a solid base and as always, it takes a little time for the cream to rise to the top,” he said. “We’ll have to see what happens. I think we will be very competitive on that event.”

The revised Code of Points has also steepened the learning curve on bars, basically adding stricter requirements for a major ‘D’ release. Fortunately, the majority of Lavallee’s returning crew already meet the requirement of a single-bar ‘D’ release. The lone exception among last year’s regulars is Brown, but the Team OC appears prepped for 2016. “She has learned a very difficult routine that looks awesome right now,” said Lavallee. Nonetheless, the bars crew collectively has the most new skills to hone and incorporate into their routines.

On the other hand, beam and floor are fully loaded, giving the coaching staff the enviable problem of having too many strong options. The 14 floor routines at the Blue-Gold meet quantifies the overall depth on the event, while the amount of talent on beam gives first-year assistant coach Annie DiLuzio plenty to work with. Stamates, Judal, Baron, Nogaki and Brown combined for 45 lineup appearances in 2015, to say nothing of three of the four top RQSs in the conference (the fourth belonging to Quebral). Add Kreager’s return, Yektaparast’s credentials and another four or five Aggies who could challenge for one of the six spots.

“I’ll just say it’s going to be pretty darn hard to make the balance beam lineup,” said Lavallee. “We have some talented people and I think our potential is very good. Balance beam is an event of environment, and you have to be comfortable in an uncomfortable environment. So it all comes down to who has everything lined up for being ready to compete and perform consistently.”

This challenge sets the stage for an exciting 2016 Aggie season, which kicks off with the annual NorCal Classic on Sunday. This year’s meeting of the five Northern California programs — Stanford, California, UC Davis, San Jose State and Sacramento State — takes place at the SJSU Event Center. The Cardinal finished fifth at last year’s NCAA finals while Cal placed third at its own regional. San Jose State finished just .125 behind UC Davis for the 2015 MPSF title. Sacramento State won the 2014 conference meet while junior Cassie Benning earned at-large regional berths on bars and floor. Meet time is 2 p.m.