September 22, 2019 | 77° F

RU enters last leg of road trip with momentum

Photo by Lianne Ng |

Juniors Luisa Leal and Alexis Gunzelman, above, will provide Rutgers with consistency as it tries to capture a victory at No. 13 Denver.

With only four meets before the EAGL Championships, the Rutgers gymnastics team needs a full effort as it hopes to build on last week’s highest road score in program history.

Since losing senior co-captain Jenna Zito to an injury Jan. 19, the Scarlet Knights have responded.

Rutgers stumbled to a 193.213 score average in the first four meets of the season. It has averaged a score of 194.583 in the three meets since.

Unexpected contributions from freshmen and the health of others have the Knights in prime position for a strong final month of the season.

“Gymnastics is one of those things you better get better and better at as the year goes on,” said head coach Louis Levine. “The more routines you do, the more comfortable you get, and so we’re getting to a point where we’re more comfortable with our routines and that’s what you’re seeing in the scores.”

The Knights (7-8, 1-3 EAGL) make the final stop in their longest road stretch of the season tomorrow in Colorado, with matchups against No. 13 Denver and Utah State.

It has been nearly three weeks since Rutgers last competed in the Livingston Recreation Center.

The Knights have no choice but to persevere.

“You have to be able to be a good road team because you’re on the road more than you’re at home,” Levine said. “We only have four chances at home and obviously a lot more on the road.”

The opportunity for a road win this weekend comes at a cost.

Denver (8-2) is a force nationally across the board, ranking No. 14 on vault, No. 11 on uneven bars, No. 19 on balance beam and No. 11 on floor exercise.

But Rutgers possesses talent of its own, peaking at the right time.

Arguably its top gymnasts the past two seasons, juniors Luisa Leal and Alexis Gunzelman are healthy and competing in all four events again.

For Leal, it has been a long time coming.

After missing most of last season with a heart problem, she spent little more than a year battling her way back to the floor exercise, her favorite event.

At Maryland on Saturday, she propelled the Knights with team-leading scores on vault, bars and floor.

“It feels good because I feel like I owe [my team] that. That’s what I’m here for — to help my team get good scores,” Leal said. “I felt alive again, because floor is like my favorite thing to compete in, and I was missing it a lot.”

Gunzelman is right back in her comfort zone.

She competed all-around in every meet last season for Rutgers, qualifying for the NCAA Regionals with a team-record score of 39.125 at the EAGL Championships.

But before Maryland, she was mostly restricted to routines on bars and beam.

Like Leal, Gunzelman relishes the increased workload.

“It felt really good [competing all-around]. It was really exciting,” Gunzelman said. “I tried staying with the team and staying within myself, and repeating what I do in [practice] to benefit the team.”

But Gunzelman notes she must do a better job of containing her adrenaline next time.

“I do think I got ahead of myself in a couple of my passes. I rushed — the nerves kind of got to me,” Gunzelman said. “Now it’s just about calming myself down and taking my time before I start my routines, and I think that’ll really help me.”

Barring setbacks in practice, Levine figures to have both Leal and Gunzelman competing all-around again this weekend.

Performances begin at 8 p.m. from Hamilton Gymnasium.

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

By Greg Johnson

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