March 19, 2013
DAVIS, Calif. - More than two weeks ago, UC Davis women's gymnastics reached new heights when it surpassed the 195-point barrier for the first time in school history, scoring a then-record 195.475 in a home dual with San Jose State. Exactly 14 days later, the Aggies struck again, breaking their own record with a 195.625. While that level of scoring may represent previously uncharted territory for the program, this weekend's Mountain Pacific Sports Federation championship meet hopes to provide more familiar status: team champion.
With a regional-qualifying score of 194.615, UC Davis heads into the conference meet as the favorite to win a fourth consecutive team title. Saturday's meet begins at 6 p.m. at Seattle Pacific's Royal Brougham Pavilion.
Indeed, that school-record RQS - good for 41st in the country - rates more than a full point ahead of nearest competitor Air Force (193.265) and more than two points in front of Seattle Pacific (192.125) and Alaska (191.720). However, head coach John Lavallee is quick to remind his gymnasts that the path behind them is far less important than the road ahead. What happened on the previous Friday is meaningless once the following Monday comes, and a week's worth of preparation begins.
"We need to have a week of practice that will afford us the opportunity to have the best performance of the year. That's our goal every week. Our formula for success is the same. Our process remains the same, as do our goals and objectives, our drive and our desire. When we walk out there on Saturday, we have to block out everything else - the conference championship, the regional rankings. We have 24 routines to do, and we have to do things that Aggie gymnastics does to be successful."
A major ingredient of success has been the 2013 senior class, which was honored at last Friday's home finale. Katie Yamamura, the reigning MPSF Gymnast of the Week, ranks among the league's top three in all five categories, including No. 1 on vault (9.830) and the all-around (39.015). Michelle Ho not only paces the MPSF on uneven bars and floor exercise, but she ranks tied for sixth among West Region floor performers with a 9.885 RQS. Additionally, Taryn West has been a stable force both as a floor performer and as a team captain, scoring 9.725 or better in each of the last three meets.
As of this week, Yamamura is on pace to qualify for the NCAA West Regional for a third year while Ho stands as the leader for the at-large qualifier on floor. Yamamura has hit 39 or better in the all-round three times this season, including a school-record 39.325 in two separate meets. Ho has scored 9.9 or better on floor on five occasions, hitting a personal-best 9.925 twice. She also has scored 9.8 or higher on floor six times. Lavallee credits this class for advancing his program, not only with their scores but with their presence and experience.
"This particular senior class has done a tremendous amount to move UC Davis gymnastics forward," said Lavallee. "They were freshmen in 2010, when we took a big jump forward. They have learned a lot and done an amazing job grooming this team. I don't think you can overestimate the value Katie Yamamura has brought to this program.
"Mo has grown even more as a captain than Michelle Kulovitz did. Kulo really carried that 2008 team, especially when Carrie [Lujan] got hurt. Mo has had a huge effect this year. It has been a tremendous experience for her. And from a gymnastics standpoint, her performance level has been unbelievably high."
Nonetheless, 195-plus scores come not from a few high scorers but rather from contributions across the board, and UC Davis boasts top performers in all events, from all four of its classes, from all-arounders and specialists alike. Leading the freshman class has been Stephanie Stamates, who ranks second in the conference on floor with a 9.830 RQS. She has broken the 9.8 barrier in eight of 10 meets, including 9.900 in the San Jose State home dual on March 1.
Another freshman, Dani Judal, and sophomore Lisa Wiktorski have lent big routines to the uneven bars rotation during the second half of the season. Judal has scored no lower than 9.725 in each of the last four meets. Wiktorski returned to the bars lineup on February 1, and has averaged better than 9.750 in the seven meets since.
Two more sophomores, Kala DeFrancesco and Tiana Montell, have provided strong scores as multi-event performers all season. DeFrancesco has uncorked a new vault that has resulted in almost a two-tenth improvement over her 2012 scores, while her floor exercise has provided 9.750 or better in six of the last seven meets. Montell, one of the Aggies' NCAA qualifiers in 2012, has competed in three events in the last six meets, scoring 9.7 or better on 10 routines.
Among the juniors, Anna Shumaker has delivered on the all-around promise she brought upon her arrival two years ago, but which had been hampered by injury. Her all-around RQS of 38.835 puts her in position to make the NCAA regional as an individual qualifier. Shumaker scored a career-high 39.050 two weeks ago at San Jose State and a 39.000 last weekend, making her the second Aggie gymnast (after Yamamura) to hit that threshold more than once. Fellow third-year Madeline Kennedy has provided consistency on vault all season and recently has found the stride on balance beam that won her that event title at last year's conference meet. She scored 9.800 on both events in Friday's home finale.
Among the conference opposition, Air Force appears to be the leading contender to knock UC Davis off its three-year perch. The Falcons scored a 194.700 in a home dual with Denver on March 11 - a score that matches the Aggies' previous record - then appeared to be on a hunt for a second straight 194 in Friday's triangular at UC Davis before a tough beam rotation left them at 193.400. Junior Linnaea Hance scored a 39.025 at the Pavilion last Friday, just off the 39.050 she compiled at home on March 2. Look for Yamamura, Hance and Shumaker to lead a strong push for the MPSF all-around title.
Also joining in that race is Seattle Pacific sophomore Shannon Escarra, who scored 38.825 at Air Force in early March. As a team, the SPU Falcons flirted with the 193-point barrier in that meet (192.975), after hitting 192-plus on two previous occasions. Both Air Force and SPU also look to use the conference championships as a launching point for the USAG Collegiate Championships in April.
Alaska Anchorage, which broke up UC Davis' streak of conference titles with a team championship in 2009, posted its season high of 192.850 at home against Eastern Michigan on February 17. Junior Emily Petersen leads the MPSF on beam at 9.785, just ahead of Yamamura (9.780) and SPU's Stephanie Wagner (9.765). The Seawolves also boast an outstanding freshman, M'rcy Matsunami, who ranks among the conference leaders in the all-around (38.600) and vault (9.790). Matsunami has cooled off from her early pace on vault but hit season bests on both bars and floor in a March 9 road meet at Eastern Michigan. She has also scored 38.725 or higher in the all-around in three meets this year.