The 2008 Central Michigan University gymnastics teams enters this season with a bright outlook and a motto aimed at guiding CMU to its 11th Mid-American Conference Championship.
“Our theme for this season is Mission: Possible,’” CMU head coach Jerry Reighard said. “To go along with that theme, our outlook is This mission cannot be completed without you.’ We know that it is going to take a total team effort to reach our goals.”
CMU has had success over the past few seasons, winning two of the last three regular season titles (2005, 2007), but has been unable to build on its MAC record 10 conference crowns. In the last three seasons, CMU has been a combined nine-tenths of a point from winning the MAC Championships.
“We counted a fall in each of the last three championship meets and that opened the door for another team,” Reighard said. “This team does not intend to let that happen this year.
“Gymnastics may be considered an individual sport, but we know that to win a championship every member of the team must be right to compete and perform up to their potential in every meet.”
CMU returns a strong core despite its youth with just two seniors. The Chippewas return three regional qualifiers and seven letterwinners from last year’s team, while five standout freshmen also will look to help CMU return to championship form.
“We have a lot of potential throughout the lineup and the depth to create a competitive atmosphere in practice and competition,” Reighard said. “The experience we gained last year will be a key to our success this season. This group will not be satisfied without a regular season and championship meet title.”
CMU will be led by its two seniors this season, Danielle Espinoza and Jenna D’Alie. Both seniors are team captains this year and will be looked upon to provide leadership this year.
“Both Danielle and Jenna have shown a leadership quality that we need out of our seniors,” Reighard said. “They provide a great example for our younger gymnasts to look up to both in practice and competition.”
Espinoza is one of the top performers in the conference on the floor exercise. She has tied for second on floor the past two MAC Championships and was also a regional qualifier in 2006. Espinoza also took third on beam during last year’s conference championships.
“Danielle is on a mission to win both an individual and a team title,” Reighard said. “She has strong tumbling skills and a brand new floor routine. Danielle has worked hard and is very determined to have a great senior year.”
D’Alie is a new face to the Chippewas’ lineup even though she is a senior. D’Alie has missed the first three seasons at CMU because of injury but will look to make an impact on the uneven bars this season.
“Jenna has undergone two serious surgeries but is now ready for her senior campaign,” Reighard said. “She will probably be a bar specialist. She has the ability to compete with the best in the conference.”
CMU’s trio of juniors, Jessica Neel, Vanessa Rodriquez, and Kyla Krygier, is a talented group that has battled through adversity and will play a key role in this team’s run to a championship.
Neel will look to build on her strong finish to last season. She missed the first half of the 2007 season but rebounded to post top 15 finishes on both the balance beam and vault at the conference championships.
“Jess is extremely hungry entering this season,” Reighard said. “We have come up with a plan to make her a champion. She has learned new skills and polished old ones to prepare for a title run.”
Rodriquez made an immediate impact last year after transferring from LSU, but was injured midseason and missed the rest of the year.
“Vanessa is a wonderful person and a great gymnast,” Reighard said. “If a stunt value could go above 10, she would have an 11.2 start value with no less than six different moves. Early on, she will only compete on bars but knowing her, she will be excelling at other events by the end of the season.”
After missing her freshman season due to injury, Krygier saw action on the uneven bars last season. She competed in nine meets and gained a lot of valuable experience.
“Don’t be surprised to see Kyla on the award stand at the MAC Championships in at least one of her three events,” Reighard said. “Her best event is the bars, because she has three release moves and a new dismount. She has MAC Championships experience from last year’s meet and has matured since that time.”
The group of Laura Rogers, Katie Simon, and Jess Suder were thrown into the fire last season and showed they had what it takes to be successful. They now have the experience needed to help build a championship team.
Simon had an outstanding freshman season in which she was named MAC Freshman of the Year and qualified for the NCAA Regional Championships.
“Katie is our franchise player. When Katie does well, we win meets,” Reighard said. “She was one of our hardest workers last season and has not lost the zeal for gymnastics. She puts her heart into every practice and is always the last to leave the gym. Katie is also a great leader as she is one of our team captains.”
Rogers was also a regional qualifier in her first season as a Chippewa last year despite being in and out of the lineup due to injuries.
“We have yet to see the true abilities and the level of performance that Laura has to offer,” Reighard said. “She doesn’t have a single weak event. Laura can be a difference maker in close meets. We need her to be in our lineup every week.”
Suder finished sixth on the balance beam last season at the conference championships and scored a team-high individual score of 9.9. She continues to improve in every event and will see time in the all-around this season.
“Jess just doesn’t fall on the balance beam,” Reighard said. “That quality is what a strong beam squad is built around. Jess has learned how to compete here at CMU and is doing the things necessary to be a champion early in her career.”
CMU welcomes another set of impact freshmen that will be called upon this season to add the depth needed to win a conference championship. The group of Andrea de la Garza, Cheryl Conlin, Jacquelyn Phillips, Samantha Ursch, and Gabrielle Bellissimo all had tremendous success at the high school and club level and will look to continue that at CMU.
Andrea de la Garza was a three-time club national qualifier and a regional champion on balance beam.
"Andrea enters college with all the skills and tools necessary to be ranked nationally,” Reighard said. “Each of her routines are competitive at the collegiate level and she also possesses skills that will make her routines stand up with anyone we compete against.”
Conlin was a Level 10 state champion on the floor exercise after winning a state title in the all-around at Level 9.
“Cheryl will challenge for a starting position in every event immediately,” Reighard said. “It’s hard to predict what will be her best event, but she has college level routines on bars and beam, and tumbling on the floor that includes two double back passes.”
Ursch was a Level 10 national qualifier last season and also helped her team to a regional championship.
“Samantha comes to CMU with two strong college level events, both the beam and floor,” Reighard said. “She is developing a new vault and learning a major release on bars. She will be a podium contender this year and a crowd pleaser on the floor.”
Phillips finished third on the bars and fifth in the all-around at the 2006 Canadian National Championships.
“I have great expectations for Jacquelyn, especially on the bars,” Reighard said. “She has beautiful lines in her performance. I brought her to CMU for her skills on the uneven bars and her ability to dance on floor.”
Bellissimo was a state, regional, and national qualifier and took third place at East Nationals on bars and floor.
“Gabi works so hard in each and every practice,” Reighard said. “She will use this year to develop and improve her skills on each event. Gabrielle is learning a new vault, release, and tumbling skills. She’s shown potential to excel at the collegiate level.”