Gymnastics: Knights shift focus to NCAA qualification

For all of its history-making accomplishments at the Livingston Recreation Center, the Rutgers gymnastics team understands none of that means anything right now.

The Scarlet Knights’ days of competition at home for this season are over, and they must travel again for two more meets to push for a berth in the NCAA Regionals.

That starts when Rutgers will compete in a dual meet tomorrow night with former conference foe Towson.

The Knights are peaking, having produced two scores more than 195 in the last three weeks, while the Tigers eclipsed a 194 Saturday for just the first time this season.

But in order to make the NCAA Regionals, Rutgers must increase its Regional Qualifying Score of 194.315 — ranked 39th nationally — into the top 36. Iowa State currently holds the last spot with an RQS of 194.715.

The statistic is calculated through a team’s six best regular season scores, three of which must be away. The highest score is eliminated and the remaining five scores are averaged.

“I feel like if we do exactly what we did on Saturday for the next two meets, our RQS will bump us up higher to the spot that we need to be to make it to regionals,” said freshman Jenna Williams.

That much is likely, but the problem for Rutgers has been maintaining its routines — not elevating them.

The Knights no longer possess the emotions and adrenaline their packed home crowd evoked on Senior Day, when they scored a school-record 195.975.

Rutgers has been far less consistent on the road, averaging a 193.740 score in away meets in contrast with a 194.450 average at home.

For the Knights, it boils down to a mental game — one in which they must stay within themselves and hone their potential.

“We just need to carry the momentum from Saturday, and we need to realize that the crowd wasn’t the one who got us the [195.975],” Williams said. “We got ourselves the 195, so we need to keep thinking in our minds that we can do this — with or without a big crowd. The capability is there.”

Much of that will start with leadership from junior co-captain Alexis Gunzelman, who produced a career-high Saturday in the all-around competition.

Early in the season she stressed a more focused mindset in practice, and the Knights have since cleaned up some of the little things in their routines. But Gunzelman knows they must continue to push.

“I think it’s important to stay within the meet,” Gunzelman said. “Don’t get sidetracked by everything else that’s going on and really focus on our team and cheering for everybody — and everybody staying cohesive and as a group like we did this past weekend.”

Head coach Louis Levine believes the motivational factor has not wavered, despite Rutgers already stamping its name in the record books.

An appearance in the NCAA Regionals remains the only satisfying prize.

“It’s going to take just going back and continuing to do what we’ve been doing and not being satisfied, and this team hasn’t been satisfied,” Levine said. “They could’ve been satisfied when we scored a 195 [for the first time]. … They have goals, and obviously their goals aren’t met yet, and so I fully expect them to just come back in and continue to attack.”

Since the beginning of February, Levine has seen his gymnasts become progressively more comfortable with their routines, even if it has not always been visible in the scores.

He insists now is simply Rutgers’ time.

“Look, we’ve had really good meets three out of the last four, other than some mistakes at Kent State on balance beam,” Levine said. “I think we’ve been pretty consistent over the last few weeks. Obviously the scores have been a little up and down, but the performances have really continued to get better and better.”

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

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