Chollet-Norton targets NCAA berth
Without a doubt, last season's Rutgers gymnastics team met head coach Chrystal Chollet-Norton's expectations. They were able to make it to USA Nationals.
But this season, those expectations rise even higher. Chollet-Norton plans on the Scarlet Knights going to the NCAA Championships, the tournament that invites only the top-36 teams in the nation.
"It's time to take the next step up," Chollet-Norton said. "We want to be in the top 36 and we want to go to the Big Dance."
Despite the higher expectations, Chollet-Norton's team is not feeling added pressure. Instead, the Knights view it as an opportunity to compete against top competition.
"We have to start out from the first meet doing the best we can," said senior Leigh Heinbaugh. "It's a huge motivation this year."
One of the reasons for Chollet-Norton's optimism is the addition of a strong freshman class, headlined by Luisa Leal, a member of the Colombian National team. In addition to her strong gymnastic skills, Chollet-Norton believes that having such a high level athlete in the gym will also help elevate the performance of the rest of the team.
"It's going to take us to the next level just seeing her working in the gym," Chollet-Norton said. "Just having her in the gym will really push the other girls."
In addition to Leal, Chollet-Norton also brought in several other athletes who — while not necessarily all-arounders from the start — will be able to contribute in multiple events right away.
"We have some great incoming freshmen with Alexis Gunzelman and Allie Ivol who are outstanding bar workers," Chollet-Norton said. "We also have Alyssa Straub, who is a level 10 national vaulting champ."
Another addition to the team that will be a familiar name is Danae Johnson, a returning junior who was only able to compete in four meets last year due to a high ankle sprain. Like the team as a whole, she is looking at this season as an opportunity to be better than she ever has been.
"I don't even want to think about last year," Johnson said. "It's time for a fresh start to just go out there and do my best."
Along with the addition of a strong freshman class, the team boasts a strong base of upperclassmen that have experience in high stakes situations. Chollet-Norton believes that last year's berth in USA Nationals will help her team as they eye the NCAA Championships.
"We have a strong senior class that has a lot of experience in pressure meets," Chollet-Norton said. "They know what to expect and can help the girls who haven't competed at that level yet."
In addition to being top performers, Chollet-Norton sees her senior class as possessing strong leadership qualities to the extent that she could not name a single captain. As an experienced member of the senior class, Heinbaugh recognizes the need to be a leader.
"I don't feel pressure to be a leader," Heinbaugh said. "I know I'm older and I have more experience so I can give advice to the other girls."
Chollet-Norton believes that the younger athletes have followed the lead of the seniors and shown redoubled effort in the weight room and during practice.
"The girls have really worked hard," Chollet-Norton said. "They have come in more fit and toned, which should really improve performance."
The Knights begin their season on Jan. 8 in New Hampshire.