Rutgers ends season in bittersweet fashion
When it’s over, it’s over.
As she was set to embark on the final stage of her journey, Father Time came knocking on senior Luisa Leal’s door Saturday evening.
Although the regular season had ended two weeks ago, Leal was able to extend her career just a little bit longer.
The fifth-year senior had qualified for the NCAA Regionals on vault, an apparatus in which she has excelled throughout her career as a gymnast on the Rutgers gymnastics team. Leal held off the inevitable just a bit longer, though, one routine left in her career.
When Leal took the floor in Morgantown, West Virginia, she fought hard to keep her emotions in check.
“I really couldn’t believe it was the last one,” Leal said. “At (the) Big Ten (Championships) there was a big chance that I could go to regionals, so I knew that it wasn’t going to be my last vault. But then this time, I was like ‘Oh my God, this is the last one.’ All of a sudden I really wanted to cry … which is very crazy. I just looked at my coaches, they were just smiling at me and said ‘Enjoy your last vault.’ … It was a pretty good one. I’m happy I ended that way.”
Leal was ready for her last run.
The Cali, Colombia, native set her feet and sprinted down the runway. Then, she jumped onto the springboard and launched herself over the vault.
She landed. The moment her feet touched the ground and presented herself to the judges, Leal’s gymnastics career had come to a bittersweet close.
The judges were impressed with Leal’s routine and awarded her a score of 9.800. She finished in a three-way tie for 25th in the individual standings.
“It was a pretty good one … Well, I guess with only one more score you know, it wasn’t my best vault ever,” Leal said. “It was a pretty good vault and I was just glad that I could finish with a good vault. That being, I didn’t get the stick but it was pretty close to it. I’m glad I ended the way I did. I’m happy with the result.”
Head coach Louis Levine was pleased with his senior gymnast’s final performance.
“Yeah, absolutely,” he said. “I thought she did a good vault. … I thought she did a really nice vault and got a good score for what she did.”
Two other Rutgers gymnasts had solid showings at regionals as well.
Jenna Williams qualified to compete on the uneven bars, earning a 9.800 on her routine.
While the junior was proud of her performance, she missed the support she became accustomed to throughout the season wit her whole team watching.
“I think I did it pretty well,” Williams said. “I would say I didn’t get my best score that I’ve gotten all year … (however) it was a great feeling. Obviously, I wish my whole entire team was there with me. Watching the other teams there, it kind of made me a little bit upset because I wish that my team was there with me.”
For Williams, it was an honor to represent the Knights on one of the biggest stages in collegiate gymnastics.
“I mean, it felt great to be one of the three girls to qualify to regionals,” she said. “It obviously was a big deal because not everyone gets to do that. It was a big honor for me to be able to end my season that way.”
Qualifying for Regionals as a freshman, Elizabeth Groden capped her first season on the banks in memorable fashion.
The freshman performed as an all-arounder and earned a total mark of 38.850 to finish in 10th place for the category.
The first-year gymnast had a 9.675 on the uneven bars, a 9.625 on vault, a 9.750 on the floor exercise and a 9.800 on the balance beam. She finished in the top-30 on vault and bars.
Levine thought that Groden’s beam routine was arguably among one of the best of her first season.
“It was probably her cleanest beam routine of the year,” Levine said. “So that probably was her best routine. I thought she did a really good job on every event. For a freshman being in that situation for the first time, I thought she did a really good job.”
With its season being as difficult as it was, sending three gymnasts to Regionals proves that the gymnastics program is trending upwards.
“They did a great job," Levine said. “You know, we got the three kids there and once we got there, we did our job. They hit all of their routines, and so you can’t really ask for much more than that.”
Now, Rutgers will move into the offseason after a rough and tumble first season as a member of the Big Ten, one of which were conference wins, they are close to competing with the best teams in the conference.
The team nearly defeated two top-ranked Big Ten teams this year in Michigan State and Nebraska.
The highlight of the season came on Senior Night when Rutgers competed at the Louis Brown Athletic Center, placing first in the meet and sweeping the competition.
“I thought we had some ups and downs,” Levine said. “Obviously, you know we put up a couple of top ten scores in school history, but in the end when the goal is to make regionals and do some of the things you want, we didn’t quite reach all those goals. Overall, I thought we had a pretty good season and you know, we’ll look to take what we’ve learned this year in our first season in the Big Ten to get better and push harder and raise the bar next season.”
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