Athletics & Recreation / Magazine Feature

Pioneer gymnastics team qualifies for NCAA Nationals

Junior All-American Jessica López (Caracas, Venezuela) posted a team-high score of 9.9 in the final floor exercise routine of the night, giving the 13th-ranked University of Denver gymnastics team a second place finish at the Northeast Regional Championships in State College, Pa., on April 12.

This is their second consecutive berth in the NCAA National Championships and the first time in school history the Pioneers have qualified in back-to-back years. The Pioneers finished second with a team score of 195.775, behind only top-ranked and three-time defending champion Georgia (197.775). The Pioneers just edged host and No. 23 Penn State (195.700) and No. 11 Auburn finished fourth (195.150), BYU was fifth (194.325) and Iowa State finished sixth (194.200).

Eerily similar to last season’s North Central Region Championships held in Magness Arena, the Pioneers and Nittany Lions battled down to the last gymnast for the right to move on to Nationals. The Pioneers finished the meet on floor exercise as PSU finished on uneven bars.

With Penn State scoring a season-high 49.150 on bars, the pressure fell squarely on DU’s floor unit to push the Pioneers on. Liz Meals led off the scoring for DU with a 9.6 and was followed with a 9.725 from freshman Amanda Johanson. Following Johanson was another freshman, Kristina Coccia. In her first performance in the lineup all season, Coccia scored a 9.8 that was DU’s third best score of the night.

Sophomore Ellen McCarthythen counted a 9.75 for the Pioneers and senior Sasha Sullivan, needing a big score for DU, scored a 9.875 to pass DU’s fate on to López. The three-time All-American didn’t disappoint, scoring a 9.9, giving the Pioneers a team score of 49.050 and sending the Pioneers on to Nationals in two weeks.

“I’m just so ecstatic,” head coach Melissa Kutcher-Rinehart said. “I’m just so proud of every athlete. We needed every athlete to step up and each and every one of them did. Jessica knew exactly what we needed in that routine and she stepped up and hit it.”

DU perhaps clinched its spot with its performance on uneven bars in its second event. The Pioneers tied their season-high score with a 49.175, counting all five scores of 9.8 or higher. López and senior Courtney Butler led the way for DU with scores of 9.875, and Sullivan posted a season-high 9.825. Senior Paige Schuster and junior Nikki Brown  each posted 9.8 to round out the Pioneers’ team score.

On balance beam individual Pioneers counted four scores of 9.8 and higher in registering a team score of 49.050. López led the way with a 9.85 to pace the Pioneers, just in front of junior Lauren Garan and Brown, who both scored a 9.825. Sullivan was fourth for the Pioneers with a 9.8.

López finished fourth in the all-around with a 39.375 and was on the podium with her 9.9 floor score.

The NCAA National Championships take place April 24–26 in Athens, Ga.

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