Dec. 30, 2013
DAVIS, Calif. -
Buoyed by the optimism of a strong intrasquad meet in early December, John Lavallee and his UC Davis women's gymnastics program heads into a new season with lofty goals and high expectations - plus the tools with which to achieve both.
The Aggies open the 2014 slate on Sunday at the Hornets' Nest in the five-team NorCal Preview, taking on California, San Jose State, host Sacramento State and ninth-ranked Stanford. Meet time is 2 p.m.
Appropriately, Sunday's meet field represents everything Lavallee looks to accomplish in the upcoming year. UC Davis has captured the last four Mountain Pacific Sports Federation titles and hopes for a fifth this March. However, standing in the way is an expanded league field, with the Spartans and Hornets returning after an eight-year stint in the Western Athletic Conference.
Furthermore, the Aggies renew their quest to qualify as a team for the NCAA postseason. Despite a school-record 194.780 regional-qualifying score in 2013, they ranked 42nd nationally to miss the cut by six places. Cal made the regional with a 28th-ranked 195.340 RQS while Sac State (194.890) and San Jose State (194.815) also bubbled in 38th and 40th place, respectively.
"We have been knocking on the door of the NCAA postseason for several years," said Lavallee. "This is the most talented group of young women that we've had since I've been here so our No. 1 goal is to be the top 36."
The high praise of his team's level of ability might open a few eyes, given the quality of gymnast that has passed through his program in recent years. In 2013 in particular, Lavallee graduated two of the most decorated performers in Aggie history. Michelle Ho capped her career with MPSF titles on bars, beam and floor; while qualifying for the NCAA regional as an at-large competitor on floor. Katie Yamamura reached the region championships in Los Angeles (2010), Seattle (2012) and Corvallis (2013), won back-to-back MPSF Gymnast of the Year nods and rewrote the school's all-around leaderboard.
Although the veteran coach will certainly miss their contributions on an individual level, it's the top-to-bottom strength that boosts his anticipation for 2014. For starters, this is the first time UC Davis will feature all 10.0 start values on all 24 routines in any given meet. New faces in each lineup plus upgraded routines by returners have collectively raised the Aggies' performance ceiling.
For example, on bars, the lineup will often feature major releases by all six gymnasts - a first in Lavallee's tenure. Junior Lisa Wiktorski
and freshmen Yonni Michovska
and Rachel Kreager
each perform Giengers, junior Kala DeFrancesco
and sophomore Jamie Yamashita
each do Tkachevs, while sophomore Dani Judal
has a Jaeger. Add that to a program that last year broke a 49 on bars for the first time in 14 years.
The program returners form a strong nucleus for 2014. In each of the last two seasons, senior Anna Shumaker, senior Madeline Kennedy and junior Tiana Montell claimed three of the program's "Outstanding Contribution" awards, given in lieu of the more traditional Most Valuable or Most Improved honors.
Shumaker won All-MPSF honors on vault, beam, floor and the all-around, scored 39 or better in three straight meets, and likely would have won MPSF Gymnast of the Year if not for Yamamura's presence. Kennedy, a former MPSF beam champion who joins Shumaker as a team co-captain in 2014, garnered a all-conference nod on vault.
Montell, the 2012 MPSF all-around champion, captured all-conference accolades on vault and beam last year. She represents one quarter of what has become a strong third-year class. Fellow junior DeFrancesco, an All-MPSF honoree on floor and a steady performer on vault last year, will unleashed an improved bars routine in 2014. Wiktorski overcame a rocky start last year to compile an all-conference-worthy RQS of 9.760. The fourth member of that class is redshirt sophomore Cassandra Quebral, who sat out the 2012 season, saw limited action last year, but enters this upcoming season as one of the team's top beam performers.
The program's second-year veterans also provide some high upside. Stephanie Stamates ranked second in the conference with a 9.830 RQS, hitting as high as 9.900 in the Aggies' March 1 home dual with San Jose State. Dani Judal hit on bars in each of her last five meets in 2013, while Jamie Yamashita painted a picture of consistency in all 12 meets on vault a year ago, but it was two unseen gymnasts for whom Lavallee reserves some excitement. Katy Nogaki and Taylor Baron were part of the same NLI early signing class as Stamates, Judal and Yamashita back in November of 2011, but sat out last year. "They are coming off some injuries and may not be ready right at the beginning of the season but through the course of the season they will be significant contributors," said Lavallee.
Kreager and Michovska, both alumnae of San Mateo Gymnastics, lead the freshman class. Kreager hails from Santa Rosa while Michovska calls Napa her home, yet each made 75-mile treks to Silicon Valley during the past two seasons to hone her respective craft. Both enter the season slightly behind due to various injuries, but have both the talent and tenacity to aid UC Davis in their first seasons.
Fueling the excitement for 2014 was the team's annual Blue-Gold meet, which annually provides the coaching staff with a measuring stick of the team's fall training. According to Lavallee, assistant coach Carolyn Kampf pulled out the video archives of past intrasquad meets for a comparative study. "We were significantly behind where we are right now. The level of difficulty, the level of performance - it was very encouraging to see that.
"This team really is in a great place, getting itself ready physically, mentally and emotionally to start the season."
NOTES: The return of Sacramento State and San Jose State to the MPSF will make UC Davis' chase of a fifth straight team title a taller order: the Hornets and Spartans took the top two spots (in some order) in each of the 2003, 2004 and 2005 championship meets before departing for the WAC... Sac State finished 3rd (195.500) while SJSU was 6th (194.700) in last year's WAC meet... The Aggies' team RQS of 194.780 is higher than the previous school record of 194.700, set at the 2008 MPSF Championships... UC Davis scored six of its all-time top 10 team totals in 2013: the 195.625 vs. Sac State/Air Force (3/15), the 195.475 vs. San Jose State (3/1), the 194.950 at the MPSF meet (3/23), the 194.675 at UCLA (2/10), the 194.500 in San Jose (3/8), and the 194.300 at Seattle Pacific (2/15)...
Senior Anna Shumaker looks to become just the third Aggie to qualify for three NCAA region meets, joining Katie Yamamura (2010, 2012, 2013) and Tanya Ho (2007, 2008, 2010)... The last time UC Davis qualified for the NCAA postseason as a team was in 1998, when advancement was based on regional ranking rather than national... That year's team finished seventh in the West with a 188.962 RQS... Two former Aggie gymnasts will return to the Pavilion as opposing assistants: Andi Dolinsky begins her first year at Utah State, which joins San Jose State and Stanford for a tough home quad meet on Jan. 26; Tanya Ho enters her second season at Sacramento State, which will compete in Davis for a Jan. 31 dual plus the conference championships on Mar. 22.