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Stretch affords Knights chance at final tune-up

<p>Senior co-captain Jenna Zito competes last season in the floor exercise, where she scored 9.825 at the EAGL?Championships, the third-highest score on the team. The Knights open the season Jan. 6.</p>

Senior co-captain Jenna Zito competes last season in the floor exercise, where she scored 9.825 at the EAGL?Championships, the third-highest score on the team. The Knights open the season Jan. 6.

After more than a month of perfecting competition routines, the Rutgers gymnastics team has hit the final weeks of its preseason. Less than a month separates the Scarlet Knights from their first meet of the season Jan. 6 in Durham, N.H., and they do not finish poorly.

During the team’s winter break from Sunday until Dec. 27, the Knights will not have formal practices and the challenge will be on team members to prepare individually outside of the Livingston Recreation Center.

Head coach Louis Levine says it is all part of a process in which the Knights must stay focused.

“[The break is] a challenge every year, and it really does come down to the individual doing what they need to do to be prepared,” he said. “Then we get back and it’s a little bit of boot camp style to really push those last seven or eight practices that we have before the first meet.”

Junior co-captain Alexis Gunzelman understands the Knights must take it upon themselves to remain fresh during the break. She already has a personal plan in mind.

“Definitely I’m going to be doing routines. I’ll probably do at least two routines four times,” she said. “I’m done my finals the 20th, so that gives me a week to get home and get that stuff done. So I think working out about four times is a good number, just to keep me consistent and keep me where I’m at right now, and not take a step back backwards.”

Levine will implement two more intrasquad practice meets to simulate pressure-packed atmospheres for the team — one at the end of the week and again after the holidays before the first meet.

“The intensity in the practices has definitely stepped up,” said senior co-captain Jenna Zito. “We’re trying to do routines with pressure, and right now is the time we’ve really got to kick it up. I know finals and holidays are coming, but we can’t afford to slow down.”

Another way Levine ensures the Knight do not get too comfortable in the gym during this crucial period is by leaving the door open on several lineup spots, insisting that no depth charts have been drawn up.

He claims he has not decided on any lineup positions or expectations for the first meet.

“There’s going to be competition through the first few meets even,” Levine said. “There’s competition in the gym every day, and the good thing about this team is there are more people competing for the spots, and that’s a good way for us to keep improving.”

As a result, the Knights’ freshmen have responded well, Zito said.

“We’re going to rely on [the freshmen],” Zito said. “There are definitely some of them that we’re going to need their scores. I think a lot of them are starting to step up and rise to the occasion, and I think they just need to realize that they’re just as much a part of this team as [the upperclassmen] are.”

The Knights project immediate contributions from freshmen Jenna Williams, Danielle Verdon and Nicolette Wilson on the uneven bars, floor and vault, respectively, Gunzelman said.

As the preseason approaches its conclusion, Levine senses the Knights coming together and beginning to peak at the right time for the start of the season.

“There was a lot of improvement from our first intrasquad to the one we had last week. It was night and day,” Levine said. “As long as we can keep progressing and keep moving forward in the right direction, our goals are attainable.”

For updates on the Rutgers gymnastics team, follow Greg Johnson on Twitter @GJohnsonTargum.

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