Gymnasts look to prove experts right and wrong

Doug Gulasy

Preseason polls pick Flashes to win regular season, but lose at home in MAC championships

A group of Kent State gymnasts stretch before practice. The team, predicted to be MAC champions, face Northern Illinois Jan. 20 at home. ELIZABETH MYERS | DAILY KENT STATER

Credit: DKS Editors

Sophomore Carly Conroy climbs a rope attached to the rafters of the gymnastics practice room in the back of the M.A.C. Center. The rope climb is part of the gymnastics team’s warm-up. ELIZABETH MYERS | DAILY KENT STATER

Credit: DKS Editors

When gymnasts Jill Kowalski and Kristin Peters were freshmen, the Kent State gymnastics team won the Mid-American Conference championship.

The next two seasons, the team came up short, finishing third in 2006 and second last season.

Now the two seniors would like to finish their careers the way they began.

“It’d probably be the most amazing thing ever (to win a MAC championship) because you’re ending everything on a good note,” said Peters, who last year was named MAC Specialist of the Year. “It’s definitely the way that our class wants to go out. We all know that that’s our goal.”

This year, the Flashes will compete for the MAC championship in front of a home crowd. The team will host the MAC Championships at the M.A.C. Center on March 29.

“(Gymnastics coach) Brice (Biggin) always reinforces that every time we have hosted MAC Championships, we haven’t lost,” Peters said. “So we have something to go against.

” . It’s exciting. I know we’re all excited. It’s going to be amazing because just competing in your home gym, it’s even better than going away.”

Biggin considers hosting the tournament an advantage because the team will feel more comfortable competing in its own facility. Last year’s host, Eastern Michigan, won the Championship.

“We are just ecstatic in the fact that we are hosting MACs this year,” said Biggin, the 2007 MAC Coach of the Year. “Once again, we feel like we have a team that certainly is capable of winning that meet, but we have to compete up to our expectations.”

Those expectations are high. Biggin said the team is “going to be disappointed with anything below a MAC championship this year.”

To win that title, Kowalski thinks the team must stay focused.

“To stay mentally tough, it will be the biggest challenge,” Kowalski said. “We’ve always been talented enough to win. It’s just the mental aspect that we really need to focus on and conquer.”

In the MAC 2008 Gymnastics Preseason Poll, coaches around the league picked the Flashes to finish first in the MAC during the regular season but tabbed Eastern Michigan to win the MAC Championships.

“It’s an honor to be chosen as hopeful regular season champs,” Kowalski said. “Then it’s like a slap in the face almost to have them picking Eastern to come in our gym and win, but you can’t worry about that. It’s just a poll.”

The team has another goal along with winning the MAC: Qualifying for the NCAA Central Regionals. Kowalski, Peters and junior Laci Hendress qualified for the tournament individually last season, but the team barely missed out.

“It’s not fun at all to go and be by yourself because college gymnastics is such a team sport,” Kowalski said. “It’s hard to go and compete by yourself.”

A rule change will make it easier for the team to qualify for regionals. In past years, the top six teams from each of the six regions qualified for their respective regionals.

Last year, the Flashes finished seventh in the Central Region, missing out despite being ranked higher nationally than teams from other regions that did qualify.

This season, the top 36 teams in the country will go to their respective regionals.

Whatever the team accomplishes this season, Biggin believes the upperclassmen will lead the way.

“(The seniors are) a very good class,” Biggin said. “They’ve been great leaders. They’re good leaders in the gym, and they’re good leaders in competition. We fully have a lot of confidence in them and think they’re one of our best senior classes we’ve ever had.”

The team has five seniors: Kowalski, Peters, Jennifer Biondo, Amy Presan and Alyssa Zambryckij.

Biggin believes the senior class, combined with good junior, sophomore and freshman classes, will give his team great depth in the season to come.

Peters believes such depth will help the team.

“Even people who aren’t in the lineup are pushing people who are in the lineup to practice their best every day because you don’t want to get kicked out of the lineup, of course,” she said. “We still have to work on our consistency; that’ll come as the season progresses, but it’ll be there.”

Despite a tightly-contested MAC, Biggin believes that his team’s depth, combined with the fact that it doesn’t have any truly weak events, will carry the Flashes to their first MAC title since 2005.

“I think ultimately that’s going to determine the winner, the team that has the most depth and is strongest on all four events,” he said. “I guess I’m hoping I don’t see anyone that I think is going to match us.”

Contact sports reporter Doug Gulasy at [email protected]