Veterans’ setbacks allow for experience

<p>Senior co-captain Jenna Zito injured herself during warm-ups Saturday before Rutgers hosted a quad meet. The Knights have had to replace her production since.</p>

Senior co-captain Jenna Zito injured herself during warm-ups Saturday before Rutgers hosted a quad meet. The Knights have had to replace her production since.

Underclassmen have played a pivotal role early in the season in guiding the Rutgers gymnastics team through several of its key injuries.

Junior Luisa Leal, EAGL Rookie of the Year in 2011, has been sidelined since the third meet of last season because of injury. Second-year head coach Louis Levine hopes to have her back within the next few weeks, he said Saturday.

When the Scarlet Knights lost senior co-captain Jenna Zito during warm-ups of their home quad meet Saturday, another absence needed to be filled.

Zito competed in three of four events in each of the team’s first two meets. She finished on top of the Knights’ lineup on vault and floor at New Hampshire on Jan. 6, and she also took first place overall Jan. 12 in the floor exercise.

For many of the Knights, Zito also possesses several intangibles and simply cannot be replaced.

“It was really devastating for all of us,” said junior co-captain Alexis Gunzelman on Saturday. “Mentally, I think we were a little short of where we were last week and the previous week.”

In spite of the loss, younger gymnasts have stepped in critical moments.

Freshman Claudia Salinas, who averaged a score of 9.350 on the balance beam in Rutgers’ first two meets, put together a first-place and career-high balance beam routine score of 9.850 without Zito in the lineup. Salinas’ performance helped the Knights achieve a season-high 48.225 team score in the event.

Classmate Jenna Williams also had her best overall performance of the season, nailing a 9.850 on both the vault and uneven bars while putting together a 9.450 performance on the balance beam.

Her teammates are impressed with how quickly she has anchored several events.

“When she competes, everyone has full confidence in her. She practices really hard, and that’s what she shows when she competes,” said senior Danielle D’Elia on Saturday. “She’s a freshman and she has so many years ahead of her, and she’s already this great. You can only expect so much more. I think she’s been a really key point in this team this year.”

Without Leal and Zito, the Knights improved Saturday from the previous meet on floor and vault with respective scores of 48.600 and 48.275.

Filling the void on the floor routine, arguably Zito’s best event, freshmen Katie Stebick and Danielle Verdon earned respective scores of 9.775 and 9.650. Sophomore Sara Skammer also earned a 9.650 in the event to round out a floor lineup that featured three of five underclassmen.

Given the circumstances, Levine is proud of how the Knights have made the most of difficult situations.

“I’m really happy with how the team came together [Saturday],” he said. “Losing your team captain in warm-ups is not an easy thing, and they were able to pretty much overcome that.”

For as long as Leal and Zito remain sidelined, the Knights need to continue overcoming adversity.

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

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