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Rutgers searches for leadership after big year

<p>Senior Emma Hoffman will be leaned on heavily for leadership this season for RU.</p>

Senior Emma Hoffman will be leaned on heavily for leadership this season for RU.

For many coaches, the toughest part about an end to a successful season is the task of psychologically preparing a team for the impending offseason, especially after losing some of its best players.  

This scenario became quite relevant for fourth-year Rutgers head gymnastics coach Louis Levine after the Scarlet Knights lost their leader and best all-around gymnast, Alexis Gunzelman, to graduation. 

Gunzelman dominated last season. Outside of her First Team All-EAGL honors in all four events and the all-around, she became the first Rutgers individual all-arounder in school history to qualify for NCAA nationals. 

She paced the Knights to their greatest season in program history. Rutgers recorded six of the top-10 scores in program history, reaching its highest national ranking of No. 16 and competing in the NCAA regionals for the first time since 2007. 

Levine, last season’s pick for the EAGL Head Coach of the Year and the NACGC/W Northeast Region Head Coach of the Year, was unfazed by the circumstances, noting a contributing factor to repeat success without Gunzelman.

“Alexis was one of the best gymnasts to come here. The only way to replace her is with a bunch of individuals. I don’t know if you can just replace her with just one person. It’s going to take a group effort,” Levine said. “Our expectations are to continue to improve. That’s really what we built our program, trying to get better year-to-year. Obviously, we set the bar pretty high last year, but we will continue to try and get better and better.”

This season, Rutgers welcomes six freshmen onto its roster and returns two seniors, five juniors and three sophomores. 

Following a season marked by strong senior leadership, a critical question looms on the horizon of the 2014-15 campaign: Who will replace Gunzelman as the team’s leader? 

A possible answer could be both seniors: First Team All-Vault and Second Team All-Uneven Bars honoree Luisa Leal and First Team All-Bars member Emma Hoffman. 

“I want to help the team any way I can,” Hoffman said. “I just want to help my team in the best way that I can, so we can get to regionals again and place the best in our conference. … We know we can compete at places where the crowd is so loud that you can’t even hear yourself think. We are hungry now — and we want to do better and better every year.”

While two seniors seemingly fill the void as leaders, it may be the star-laden group of six freshmen that has the most impact on the Knights’ success. It is a group that includes Jenna Crisalli, Sahara Gipson, Elizabeth Groden, Ayana Lee, Elizabeth Nand and Makenzey Shank. 

According to Levine, those freshmen are responsible for the current and future success of the program.

“We are looking for a lot out of our freshman. We have a great freshman group as a whole, and it’s going to be them that are going to have to step-up,” Levine said. “Whether it’s Ayana, Sahara, Sarah or Elizabeth on an event, or whoever since we have six [freshmen], we are going to count on all of them to step up in certain areas. And as a program, that is really how we will continue to improve — by bringing in freshman that push upperclassmen.”

Rutgers hopes to continue its success Jan. 10, when it opens its inaugural Big Ten season at Penn State against three teams that finished in the top 12 at NCAAs last year. 

Despite it standing as a tall task, Levine is confident in Rutgers’ abilities.

“At the beginning of last season we talked about starting off with scores that we needed to qualify for regionals, and we ended up doing that,” Levine said. “Now, we just need to keep pushing forward here during the last month of practices and look forward to a good season.”

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

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