Gymnastics Gears Up For MPSF Championships

Anna Shumaker's all-around RQS of 39.175 broke a school record set by Katie Yamamura (39.065, 2013) and a conference record dating back to SJSU's Dani Albright (39.130, 2003).<br>(Wayne Tilcock, <i>Davis Enterprise</I>)
 
Anna Shumaker's all-around RQS of 39.175 broke a school record set by Katie Yamamura (39.065, 2013) and a conference record dating back to SJSU's Dani Albright (39.130, 2003).
(Wayne Tilcock, Davis Enterprise)
 

March 17, 2014

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DAVIS, Calif. - With a 194.950 score in Saturday's dual season finale, UC Davis women's gymnastics nudged its regional-qualifying score to a record 195.205, good for 31st nationally. According to the analysts at the website roadtonationals.com, that RQS mathematically clinches a spot in next week's top 36 and the program's first team berth to the NCAA regionals since 1998.

That feat, which the NCAA will confirm officially during its regional site pairings announcement on March 24, completes a season-long task for the Aggies and head coach John Lavallee. With the postseason spot locked up, his gymnasts may now narrow its attention on the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation championship meet, held at the UC Davis Pavilion on Saturday.

"What it does is take some variables off the table and allows us to really focus in on our performance," said the five-time MPSF Coach of the Year honoree. "This group has done a very good job all year of focusing in on what we need to do, but it's a tough week for us -- it's finals week. Our brains are preoccupied and focused elsewhere. Having one more thing off of our plate and not having to worry about going into Saturday should really free us up to go out there and have a big performance."

Indeed, the university's final examinations begins on Tuesday and ends on the afternoon of the MPSF meet. Breaking loose from the academic grind, particularly for a UC Davis gymnastics program that consistently rates high among its university and national peers, will count as another weight removed from the Aggies' collective shoulders.

In simple terms, this year's MPSF championship should be the most competitive in conference history. The return of San Jose State and Sacramento State has restored the meet to a six-horse race for the first time since 2005. The Spartans sit 29th in the country, two points higher than the Aggies with an RQS of 195.345. The Hornets lag behind at 44th nationally, but they have shown a penchant for rising to the challenge of their leaguemates: they scored a 194.900 at home against SJU on February 14, then hit a season-high 195.275 to win the March 7 triangular with UC Davis and Alaska Anchorage on March 7.

"It's going to be a really good meet," said Lavallee. "We've beaten Sac and Sac has beaten us. We've beaten San Jose State and San Jose has beaten us. Air Force went 195 last weekend on the road at UNH, and Seattle Pacific has gone mid-194. So this should be a very tight gymnastics competition."

From a spectator point of view, the 2014 meet should provide drama largely missing in recent MPSF championships. UC Davis won the 2013 title by a margin of 1.750 points, more than 2.5 full points in 2012 and by a 1.300 deficit in 2010. Compare that to the first years of the MPSF: Sac State edged Air Force by a 194.900-194.650 score in the inaugural 2012 meet, then nipped San Jose State by a 194.925-194.500 margin a year later. In 2004, San Jose avenged the two previous years by nabbing the title by a half-point (195.925 to Sac State's 195.400).

This year, Lavallee predicts the difference between the top three or even top four team scores could be less than a full point. "It should be very exciting and very close. We have six very good teams who are ready to go out and perform at their highest levels. [The championship] will come down to the little things."

An examination of UC Davis' own scores down the stretch helps reveal the small margins of error. The Aggies have not counted a half-point deduction (e.g. fall from an apparatus or missed landing) in a meet since February 7. Yet the team scores have ranged from high-194 marks (at Alaska Anchorage, Sac State, Cal) to a low-195 (at Seattle Pacific) to the school-record 196.425 (at home on Feb. 28).

While the judging counts for a large part of the week-to-week variance, as one panel may be more discreet than other, the difference in scores largely falls on small details: the number of steps or the straightness of legs on a landing, the vertical angle of a handstand, the completeness of a turn.

Again, reaching the home stretch of the academic rigors will allow the Aggies to polish these fine details, according to Lavallee. "We're just trying to get fresh and strong. Our gymnastics is good, so the biggest thing in terms of getting everything sharp will be having that time back to focus."

The centerpiece of UC Davis' success is Anna Shumaker, the team's prime candidate for MPSF Gymnast of the Year honors. The Alameda, Calif. native enjoyed a promising freshman season in 2011, in which she reached the NCAA regional as an individual vault qualifier; made a heroic comeback from offseason shoulder surgery to earn two All-MPSF awards in 2012; then performed superbly as an all-arounder last year but often toiled in the shadow of teammate Katie Yamamura.

As a senior, Shumaker has put her own stamp on the program. She has scored 39 or better six times this year, including each of the past five meets. Her RQS of 39.175 surpasses the old conference record of 39.130, set by San Jose State's Dani Albright in 2003.

"Anna Shumaker has been off the charts," Lavallee said. "Her record of consistency is incredibly impressive, more impressive than if she set the school record." For what it's worth, Yamamura still holds the UC Davis meet record of 39.325, but Shumaker's week-to-week performance has resulted in a higher RQS (39.175 to 39.065).

Appropriate of a team captain, Shumaker is quite emblematic of the Aggies' strengths in 2014: consistency, perseverance and, of course, high-quality gymnastics. Fellow captain Madeline Kennedy and junior Tiana Montell have shown both rock-solid reliability and a penchant for rising to the occasion at the conference meet. Kennedy shattered her previous career high by winning the MPSF beam title in 2012, the same year Montell upset teammate Yamamura for the all-around championship.

Junior Lisa Wiktorski leads all MPSF bars performers with a 9.840 RQS.
(Wayne Tilcock, Davis Enterprise)


Another of the dependable performers of the year is sophomore Stephanie Stamates, whose very name aligns itself alliteratively with the word "steady." The CGI alumna has scored 9.800 or better in nine straight meets on floor, including 9.900s against Seattle Pacific and Cal during the past three. She also broke that barrier on beam four times during an astounding six-week stretch in which UC Davis post six of the top seven beam scores in school history.

Perhaps the unsung heroes of the team have been a trio of single-event specialists, who have been largely unwavering in their abilities to rank among the conference leaders in their respective events. In fact, junior Lisa Wiktorski sits atop the MPSF rankings on bars at 9.840, having notched marks of 9.875-9.825-9.850 in the past three meets. Redshirt freshman Katy Nogaki has delivered a vault RQS of 9.780, helped by a school record-tying 9.900 on Jan. 26. Senior Regi Solvkjar, who competed in the lineup just three times in her first three seasons, became a mainstay on that apparatus this year. She ranks eighth in the MPSF with a 9.780 RQS, scoring 9.825 or higher on three occasions.

Finally, the X-factors for the team's record-setting output have been the improvement by Judal, junior Kala DeFrancesco and sophomore Jamie Yamashita. Judal had missed on bars in back-to-back meets in January, nearly costing herself a spot in that lineup. She responded with a 9.875 the following weekend (to go with a school-record 9.900 on beam), and since has climbed to No. 2 in the conference bars rankings.

DeFrancesco began her career as an all-arounder but was reduced to two events as a sophomore last year. This season, she has become a three-event performer (vault/bars/floor) almost without peer. DeFrancesco currently sits 9th, 11th and 9th in the three evens, respectively. Her meet totals of 29.500, 29.300 and 29.350 in the past three weeks extrapolate to that of an all-arounder averaging 39.178.

Yamashita has taken one of the toughest roles, filling the No. 6 or 7 spots of several lineup. In any given meet, she may count among the team's six scores or appear only in exhibition. Last Saturday, that pinch-hitting ability proved crucial: Yamamshita filled in for Montell on both vault and floor, responding with scores of 9.650 and 9.750, respectively. "That depth is what has made this team as strong as it is," said Lavallee. "If we have a 9.8 gymnast who can't go that day, we're not dropping down to a 9.4. It makes a huge difference overall."

As such, the competitive nature of Saturday's meet will have Lavallee looking to every member of every lineup. "Our points will come from all 24 spots. In order for us to do what we hope to do, we need all six people in the lineup in each event to do their best of the season. It will be that tight. It will be little things here and there that make the difference."

Saturday's championship meet begins at 6 p.m. Tickets are available at tickets.ucdavis.edu.

NOTES: The All-MPSF teams will be announced during the same weekend as the championship meet, although the exact date has not been established... Traditionally, the top gymnast by RQS from each team plus the next four at-large performers each earn nods... The 2014 Aggies become the first to reach the NCAA regionals as a team since 1998, when UC Davis advanced as the No. 7 team in the West... Until 2008, six teams from each region made the NCAA postseason; starting that year, the top 36 national teams advanced... The Aggies' closest call came in 2010, with a No. 39 finish... UC Davis has had at least two individual NCAA qualifiers in each of the last four seasons... The regional hosts are Minnesota (North Central), Georgia (Southeast), Arkansas (South Central), Louisiana State (Central), Penn State (Northeast) and Washington (West)... UC Davis will mostly likely not compete at the Washington meet but rather will be sent as an at-large entrant to another regional.

Monday's NCAA regional announcement will coincide with another event for the Aggie team... Having adopted young Alyssa Kalb as part of the Friends of Jaclyn Foundation on Feb. 6, the team will be formally recognized on the California Assembly floor at noon that same day... The FOJ seeks to improve the quality of life for children and families battling pediatric brain tumors... Dennis Murphy, father of namesake Jaclyn, will be in attendance at the Assembly event.