Rutgers enters Big Ten after record-breaking year

<p>Freshman Claire Jones consistently appeared in the lineups on balance beam and floor exercise for the Knights this season.</p>

Freshman Claire Jones consistently appeared in the lineups on balance beam and floor exercise for the Knights this season.

The Rutgers gymnastics team wanted to break a score of 196.000 this season. The Scarlet Knights wanted to earn their first NCAA Regionals bid since 2007. The Knights aimed to place well at the EAGL Championships.

Rutgers accomplished all three of those goals in a season that was filled with career highs and program bests.

Six of the top-10 scores in program history come from this season, including the program-record score of 196.225 on March 8 on Senior Day.

Head coach Louis Levine said making regionals this year was a step in the right direction for the program.

“It’s a goal that we’ve accomplished,” Levine said. “It’s something we’ve talked about and it’s a step in the right process to being a team that can compete for making nationals, and down the road winning national championships. This is the first step in that process.”

Freshman Claire Jones likened this year’s experience at regionals as the Knights’ practice round, and compared it to taking the PSAT before the SAT in high school.

“Next year, it’s not going to be new. It’s going to be ‘regionals, oh here we go again.’ We’ve already been here, done that,” Jones said. “First-time nerves aren’t going to be there. We’ve seen it, we’ve seen how it works [and] we’ve seen how good the teams are. We’re not going to be shocked at how good Georgia is.”

This was the final season for the Knights in the East Coast Gymnastics League before they move into the Big Ten next year.

 “We faced a couple of Big Ten teams this year [and] we faced a pretty high caliber of opponents throughout the year,” Levine said. “Going into the [EAGL championships], we were 4-1 against teams in the top 26. I think we prepared well for next year. The competitions gets a little bit stiffer on a week-to-week basis, and then you’re facing teams that are in the top 10 or top 20 in the country. We start to prepare but in the end in gymnastics, it doesn’t matter who you’re competing against, you’ve got to get up and hit routines.”

The Big Ten had six teams finish in the top 36 this year, including Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan.

Rutgers faced both Ohio State and Penn State in the regular season, defeating Ohio State in the third meet of the season and falling Feb. 22 to Penn State. The Knights faced Michigan and saw the Buckeyes for a second time last weekend.

Senior Alexis Gunzelman, whose season will continue when she competes in the individual all-around at nationals next weekend in Alabama, said that this experience can motivate the team next year.

“[Making regionals] was one of the goals from the beginning and it shows that if we aim high, we can get there,” Gunzelman said. “All the experience that they’ve gained through competing at regionals, they know what they have to do next year and how to motivate everybody to do their best.”

The Knights will return all but four seniors in Gunzelman, Alyssa Straub, Allie Ivol and Jenna Zito.

For Jones, she simply wants the team to move forward next year.

 “It’s all I know. I don’t know this team as not going to regionals. I don’t know this team as not busting their butts in the gym,” Jones said. “I don’t have anything to compare it to, so I can’t say look where we were [and] look how far we’ve come. … Next year I want to break more records — I want to win regionals. I don’t know the past. I just know where we’re at right now and the only way I know is to go forward.”

For updates on the Rutgers gymnastics team, follow @TargumSports on Twitter.

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