Dec. 27, 2012
DAVIS, Calif. - No fewer than 23 of the 24 lineup slots from John Lavallee's lineup card at last year's Mountain Pacific Sports Federation championship return for 2013, providing the seventh-year head UC Davis women's gymnastics coach great optimism heading into the upcoming season. The Aggies kick off the 2013 slate on January 4 in a road meet at San Jose State, competing alongside Sacramento State and Stanford in what has become an annual NorCal quadrangular.
Seven UC Davis gymnasts took home at least one All-MPSF award last year. Katie Yamamura, also the MPSF Gymnast of the Year, won such honors in all four events plus the all-around. Michelle Ho, Anna Shumaker and Madeline Kennedy claimed two awards apiece, while Leah Housman, Taryn West and Tiana Montell each picked up one. All are back. On the 11 Aggies who saw action in meets last year, only 2012 graduate Erika Van Dyke - whose preseason injury limited her to seven uneven bars appearances - does not return.
"With the team being really small last year, we now have a very experienced team returning," said the four-time MPSF Coach of the Year. "We only lost one spot in the bars lineup from last year's competition team. That's a lot of people returning who know what we need to do to get where we need to be. It really is an excellent balance of youth and experience."
With such personnel, Lavallee has restored his top priority: to finish among the nation's top 36, thus earning a spot at the NCAA regional. UC Davis last competed in the NCAA postseason as a full team in 1998, when Ray Goldbar's Aggies emerged as the No. 7 team in the West region and 50th in the national leaderboard. When Lavallee took over the program, the rules had changed: a qualifying team must have a regional-qualifying score, or RQS, in the top 36 regardless of region.
The closest the Aggies have come to reaching that circle was in 2010, the year Yamamura, Ho and West were freshmen. Indeed, UC Davis has qualified individuals to the region meets. From this year's team, Yamamura (2010 and 2012), Montell (2012) and Shumaker (2011) have all reached that frontier as at-large qualifiers. But reaching the NCAA meet as a full squad under the new criterion would be new territory, for which Lavallee is confident his team is ready.
"Being in that top 36 is certainly what we're shooting for," said Lavallee. "For our seniors, that was our target their freshman year. We full just short. We took it off the radar scope a bit last year. But they're definitely on a team that is stronger and more accomplished than any team they've been on. We feel this should be a group that we can have a lot of fun with."
At the front of the program is Yamamura, who rates to finish her career as the most outstanding gymnast in school history. Besides qualifying to two NCAA regionals as an all-arounder (she battled injuries as a sophomore), the Palo Alto, Calif. native has earned 10 All-MPSF honors, won seven conference event championships, and earned MPSF Gymnast of the Year honors. Upon Yamamura's arrival at UC Davis, only four gymnasts had ever broken the 39-point barrier in the all-around and no Aggie had ever done it more than once. She has hit that plateau six times in her career, including a school-record 39.225 at Sacramento State last season.
Despite these laurels, Lavallee contends Yamamura's preparation level is higher at this point in the year than it has ever been. "Yami is a rare student-athlete. Her ability to perform has always been very strong. Coming into this year, with the experience she has behind her, I think she will be more relaxed out there and be able to show it a little bigger, which will be better for her."
Yamamura also achieved a less-heralded feat in 2012: she competed in all four events in every meet. With the Aggies' greater depth in the upcoming year - Lavallee sees seven or eight strong routines in each event - Yamamura may not need to take on such a load from wire to wire, hopefully making her fresher for the conference championship and postseason.
Two other seniors enter their fourth Aggie seasons not only with heightened goals but with the roles of team co-captains. Taryn West had appeared in all 11 meets as a sophomore in 2010 but she stepped up her game to contribute on both vault and floor last year, earning All-MPSF honors in the latter. Michelle Ho captured all-conference nods on both bars and floor for the second straight year, although the 2012 season was the first in which she finished the year on a relative high note. She scored 9.775 or better on floor in each of the final four meets, including a career-high 9.875 at Sacramento State.
"In my system, the team captains play a heavy role," said Lavallee. "They have a lot of responsibilities and a lot of input. The team feels it has a direct voice through them. Mo and Taryn have done an excellent job getting this team ready to go. They've helped the freshmen learn the ins and outs of being a student-athlete at UC Davis."
"We can always count on Maddy being there 100 percent, every day," Lavallee said. "She will continue to see action on the same three events. Hopefully, we'll upgrade her vault and see a little more out of that. Her beam routine is already very action-packed and her floor is solid. That's her strength: she is rock-solid."
With such a young, small roster in 2012, three freshmen saw considerable action right out of their gates. Kala DeFrancesco appeared on at least two events in all 12 meets, and three or more on nine occasions. Lisa Wiktorski recovered from more than a year's absence from gymnastics to serve as a steady bars contributor. And Tiana Montell scored 38.725 at the MPSF meet to capture the individual all-around title, earning her first ticket to the NCAA postseason.
In most situations, putting true freshmen into play is seen as an investment for the future. According to Lavallee, his program reaped such rewards immediately. "Having last year's freshmen come in and be able to perform the way they did paid dividends right away. They contribute to upgrade and learn, and they'll need to continue doing that throughout their career."
With last year's freshmen having earned a valuable season of meet experience, UC Davis brings in what is perhaps its most decorated group of first-year gymnasts in program history. Six have competed at Junior Olympics national championship or national invitational meets. Most likely to contribute as all-arounders are Dani Judal, a former USAG TOP (Talent Opportunity Program) National Team member from Byers Roseville; Stephanie Stamates, a two-year J.O. veteran from CGA; and Jamie Yamashita, who qualified for three Level 10 regionals for SCEGA.
Many local Aggie fans received their first primer of the 2013 team in early December, during the team's annual Blue-Gold intrasquad meet. That meet only confirmed Lavallee's positivity. "This year's meet was the best we've ever had both in terms of performance level but more importantly in terms of depth," he said. "In terms of our physical readiness right now, we are stronger, faster and more powerful than we've been in past years. Our conditioning numbers are higher than they've ever been as a group. That showed in the level of performance that we saw."
The team's readiness will receive its first test in the season opener in San Jose. The host Spartans snared last year's 35th spot for the NCAA field with a 194.790 RQS while Causeway Cup rival Sacramento State missed the cut by a third of a point, finishing 41st at 194.470. No. 11 Stanford won its fifth NCAA Championship berth in the past six years. How well UC Davis finishes in this four-team field will provide an early indicator for the Aggies' place in the West and among the national leaders.
The January 4 meet takes place at San Jose State's Event Center at 7 p.m.
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