March 19, 2012
DAVIS, Calif. - Coming off consecutive 194-plus performances on the road, the UC Davis women's gymnastics team appears to have found its stride just in time. The Aggies return home to close out their 2012 season with the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation championship meet, held at the Pavilion at 6 p.m. Saturday evening.
UC Davis looks to capture its third straight MPSF title, and its fourth in the past five years.
Save for a 193.875 at home in early February, head coach John Lavallee's young squad never put together a complete meet during the first two months. As recently as the March 2 regular-season home finale with Arizona, San Jose State and Alaska Anchorage, the Aggies struggled to a 191.600 - more than a full-point drop from their 192.900 at Seattle Pacific the week before. A day of practice during the following week only stirred the uneasiness heading into the season's final stretch.
Then UC Davis responded. The team hit 24-for-24 to compile a 194.025 at Sacramento State, enough to outscore visiting Central Michigan and Seattle Pacific. Five days later, the Aggies struck again with a season-best 194.150 at San Jose State, tied for the 10th-highest score in program history. They nailed 6 on 6 routines on each of vault, bars and floor. The beam squad finished out the meet with a 48.775 effort, No. 2 all-time in the Aggie record book.
"I continue to be completely and totally impressed with how this group has progressed," said Lavallee. "As I told them, we went through the inferno and came out the other side. We had some hard lessons and some bitter pills to swallow. But we've learned from them and markedly improved."
"In Friday's meet, there were three teams who were on fire. No team counted a fall. Everyone was going after it. Our team really likes being in that highly charged environment. So I'm hoping it continues with the conference championships this Saturday. It will be another high-energy, intense environment. Based on how the team has performed the last two weeks, I'm looking pretty eagerly about going out there and having them do what they can do."
At initial glance, the standout UC Davis gymnast has been junior Katie Yamamura. She has earned MPSF Gymnast of the Week six times and has broken the 39-point barrier in the all-around on four occasions, culminating with a school-record 39.225 at the Hornets' Nest on March 11. As such, Yamamura ranks tied for eighth in the West Region with a 38.925 regional-qualifying score and owns the conference's highest average on vault, uneven bars and the all-around.
As well as she has performed, Yamamura remains just a part of the Aggies' scoring punch. Junior Michelle Ho looks primed to enjoy her best conference championship of her career. She hit a personal-best 9.875 on floor exercise at the Sacramento State meet, then delivered marks of 9.725 on bars, 9.800 on beam and 9.825 on floor last weekend in San Jose. Sophomore and 2011 NCAA regional qualifier Anna Shumaker, already a consistent 9.7-9.8 performer on vault, has posted beam scores of 9.750 and 9.850 during the past three meets.
Sophomore Madeline Kennedy has scored 9.700 or better on floor six times and has been a consistent contributor on vault. However, she has been an unsung component of the recent success on balance beam, scoring 9.675, 9.600 and 9.625 during the past three weeks after an up-and-down early season. Junior Taryn West has provided steady scoring on both vault and floor, ranking fifth in the conference in the latter heading into Saturday's championship.
Perhaps the most important factor in the team's development have been the newcomers. Coach Lavallee expected some initial growing pains as a group of freshmen and a junior transfer made their transition into the Aggie program this year. However, he remained confident in his program rookies - their tools were simply that strong.
Sure enough, freshman Tiana Montell has blossomed into a solid No. 2 all-arounder alongside Yamamura, scoring 38.450 and 38.625 in the last two meets, respectively. She now looks to grab one of the five at-large qualifiers to the NCAA Regional. Freshman Kayla DeFrancesco has competed in at least three events nine times this year. She hit a season-best 9.825 on bars and tied her PR of 9.700 on floor in Friday's triangular at San Jose State.
Also among the newcomers, junior Leah Housman and freshman Lisa Wiktorski have lifted UC Davis as intriguing event specialists. Housman transferred to UC Davis after Cal State Fullerton discontinued its program last spring. After appearing in 17 meets in two years as a Titan, she has become one of the top beam performers in the conference this season. Housman scored 9.800 or better in three straight meets in February and stuck a 9.775 in Friday's meet at Spartan Gym. Injuries sidelined Wiktorski for almost two full club seasons prior to her arrival at UC Davis, yet she has scored as high as 9.725 on bars this year. She posted a 9.700 at Sacramento State on March 11.
"They really have figured it out. This team is going out in intense environments and competing in a comfortable space," said Lavallee. "They're in control of what they're doing. They know you don't have to be superhuman, just go out and do what you do everyday in the gym, and you can compete with anybody."
On paper, Air Force appears to be the strongest challenger to unseat UC Davis from its two-year hold on the MPSF title. The Falcons outscored the Aggies in a dual meet back on February 18, and rank as the only other conference team to score 193 - hitting that plateau at home on March 5. Sophomore Linnaea Hance ranks second in the conference in both bars (9.745) and the all-around (38.160), while Jessica Wallender and Jessica Hanner hold the league's No. 2 RQS in vault and beam, respectively.
Seattle Pacific sits closely behind Air Force in the team standings with a 191.615 RQS (to AFA's 191.620). In fact, the SPU Falcons have scored their highest two marks in meets involving the AFA Falcons: a 192.575 at home on February 3 and a 192.475 at the Academy a month later. Senior Sherah Veron edges the Aggies' Ho for the top spot on floor with a 9.810 RQS. Junior Stephanie Wagner ranks third on beam and fourth on floor.
Alaska Anchorage owns the distinction of being the last team besides UC Davis to hoist the MPSF championship trophy, which the Seawolves did in 2009. Thanks to all-around PRs from freshmen Morgan Cook and Sariaye Jensen in Sunday's dual with Michigan State, UAA closed out its regular season with a season-best 192.625 - almost two full points above its previous best. Melissa Doucette and Emily Petersen are the highest ranked Seawolves among the MPSF event lists, holding the No. 5 spot on vault and bars, respectively.
The conference will also announce its Coach of the Year, Assistant of the Year and Gymnast of the Year awards after Saturday's meet. The All-MPSF awards, which are based on the conference RQS standings, will also be released following the championship.
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