Historic feats highlight strong season
Luisa Leal called together her demoralized teammates Saturday in Chapel Hill, N.C., after the Rutgers gymnastics team failed to qualify for the NCAA Regionals.
The team was frustrated with being foiled at the threshold of the top 36 nationally, but the junior implored the Scarlet Knights to not lose sight of the big picture.
Despite failing to finish strong at the East Atlantic Gymnastics League Championships, Rutgers raised the standard of its program this season with historic accomplishments.
“I said, ‘Hey, yes, we had a rough meet [Saturday] — so what?’” Leal said. “We had a heck of a season. We haven’t done that in a lot of years, so I think we should be proud because … we broke a lot of records. The team is now in the loop again. Everybody knows we’re good.”
The surge began Feb. 2 at the Livingston Recreation Center, when the Knights earned their first 195 score in nearly 13 years.
Any qualms about it being a fluke were quickly put to rest just two weeks later — when Rutgers topped the 195 mark with a 195.050 at Maryland – its then-highest road score in school history.
The Knights refused to become satisfied as they continued to push and tap into their potential. During focused competitions and practice, they exploited depth and came together — striving to perfect tiny intricacies in their routines.
“One of the things we talked about at the beginning of the year was [that] we needed to believe in ourselves,” said head coach Louis Levine. “We finally got to that point — where we knew what we were capable of.”
It all culminated with a seemingly scripted Senior Day on March 2 — when Rutgers shattered every team mark in program history with a 195.975. The Knights then set a new road record score of 195.550 at Towson the following week, proving that they had the same mental fortitude outside the Livingston Recreation Center.
Leal — who was just named an EAGL Team MVP on Friday — broke the individual all-around record she set as a freshman. After starting the season on the shelf for three weeks with injury, the Cali, Columbia, native helped the Knights stay the course.
“Being MVP is like the biggest gift I’ve been given,” Leal said. “I always try to be the person that helps — the person that has the right attitude and the person trying to be contagious of good stuff … I don’t do it to be valued, but it’s nice when someone tells you, ‘Hey, we like you for that.’”
In total, the Knights eclipsed a 195 four times this season — all among the top six scores in school history. To put it in perspective, only 27 teams in the country averaged that mark this year.
Rutgers’ season score average — a 194.179 — surpasses the team’s 2012 season-high mark of 193.850.
“We’ve accomplished so much that not making it to regionals and not winning EAGL don’t seem — not that it’s not that big of a deal — but we’ve already done so much other stuff and broken so many others records,” said senior Danielle D’Elia. “You can honestly still be happy and grateful that you had such a great season.”
As Rutgers awaits word on its individual qualifiers for the NCAA Regionals — which could be as many as four — D’Elia knows that this could be it for her. Despite not finishing her career by traveling with the team to the regional tournament, the Colts Neck, N.J., native leaves Rutgers with no regrets.
“When you focus on one thing, it tends to get you down,” D’Elia said of the team missing the NCAA Regionals. “When I look at the overview of my entire career as a gymnast, I’m happy that I was able to do the things that I’ve done and have the support that I’ve had from everyone around me.”
Before the season, the notion of Rutgers eclipsing even a 194 score was seen a tremendous plunge into uncharted territory.
It has become the norm now — the stone-tablet standard for the program.
And the Knights see no reason to dip moving forward.
“The freshmen that we’re getting next year are really high-level Level 10s,” Leal said. “And, with the attitude and the confidence that we have right now, the team is definitely just going to keep going up. This year was kind of like the boost — we’re getting bolstered now. We just needed to break the wall to get those high scores … Now we know we’re as good as every other team.”