Influx of freshman encourages Chollet-Norton
Coming off of a banner year in which the Rutgers gymnastics team earned a spot at USA Nationals, the Scarlet Knights will once again look to exceed expectations.
With a strong freshman class and a host of talented athletes returning this season, the team is looking for a new beginning.
Despite not having their first competition until Jan. 8, the Knights are already focused on a season that could unveil the team as a burgeoning powerhouse.
"Last season we went to USA Nationals," said head coach Chrystal Chollet-Norton. "This year with the athletes we have coming in and the girls we have returning, we have our sights set on the NCCAs."
The Knights' goal a year ago was simply to get to USA Nationals, a tournament equivalent to the National Invitational Tournament in college basketball. With a roster that boasts a strong freshman class and experienced upperclassmen this time around, Rutgers is primed to take the next step.
One of the biggest problems the program faced in the past was a lack of funding.
"It has been impossible to offer full scholarships to all the athletes that deserve them," Chollet-Norton said.
With the help of Athletic Director Tim Pernetti, the team now has the monetary backing to bring in elite athletes that have experience in three or four events from the start.
One coup in this year's recruiting class is Luisa Leal, a member of the Colombian National Team and a qualifier for the Gymnastics World Championships.
The prized recruit noted that an increase in funding greatly contributed to her signing with Rutgers.
"Luisa is an absolutely dynamic athlete," Chollet-Norton said. "It took a while to get her here, but she is really excited to be here."
With Leal, the coaching staff boasts an athlete at a level that warrants special treatment. Still, Chollet-Norton recognizes that an athlete of Leal's caliber should stick with the routine she uses. "We are integrating her into the team," Chollet-Norton said. "We have to take a step back because we don't want to mess anything up."
Chollet-Norton is also excited about the rest of her recruiting class, headlined by two athletes from New Jersey in Alexandria Ivol and Alexis Gunzelman.
"We have some great incoming freshman with Alexis Gunzelman and Allie Ivol who are outstanding bar workers," Chollet-Norton said.
Along with her influx of young talent, Chollet-Norton has a strong group of upperclassmen returning.
Highlighted by seniors Kiah Banfield, Leigh Heinbaugh and Sunny Gerlach, the returning upperclassmen boast a great deal of experience and leadership.
"We are such a close team and even though we stress it, it comes from them," Chollet-Norton said. "We didn't even name a captain because we have such a strong senior class."
Chollet-Norton also noted that with the added support from Pernetti comes greater pressure on the team to perform at a high level. The coach and her team take these expectations in stride, recognizing that regardless of pressure, that going to the NCAAs is their goal.
"With more money, there is more pressure," Chollet-Norton said. "We have to take the step up to the Big Dance, but that is something we would have wanted anyway. Tim gave us the money to be able to give a full ride to an athlete like Luisa.
"Danae [Johnson] is healthy. Leigh is back. We are looking forward to it. We are a close team."