BYU fans should have plenty to cheer about during the 2009 gymnastics season. (Photo by Mark Philbrick/BYU Photo)
Coming off a fifth-place finish at the 2008 NCAA Regional tournament, the Cougar gymnasts return for another shot at making it to the national stage. Last season marked the team’s ninth-consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance. This year’s squad is geared up for another run at its 10th NCAA National Championship berth, the biggest stage in collegiate gymnastics.
For the first time in BYU head coach Brad Cattermole’s tenure, the BYU gymnastics team has no seniors. Top returners include junior team captains Megan Donehue and McKell Poulson-Merkley who will both be relied upon as excellent performers on the uneven bars.
“I don’t think we’ve ever been in the situation of having no seniors,” said Cattermole. “Our juniors are good kids and are leading the boat right now. You’re always a little concerned with leadership, but they have all been competing since they were freshmen, so they should do fine.”
Other returning upperclassmen include Danielle Goldman, Kaylee Gallup and Melissa Hough. Goldman is a likely candidate for the all-around competition while injury will confine Gallup to the beam. Hough will compete on the uneven bars and floor exercise.
Sophomores will also add depth to the Cougar squad as Jessica Villegas, Maddie Johnson and Whitney Olsen return for their second year. Johnson will look to compete in all of the events while teammate Villegas will not perform until later in the season due to injury. Olsen will return to pace the Cougars on the floor exercise.
As for the new recruits, Cattermole said they will be a nice addition to the squad as soon as they are healthy and strong. In order to land a NCAA Championship berth, the team of returners and new recruits will need to improve their health quickly to finish the season strong.
There are more freshmen on the 2009 roster than sophomores and juniors combined, with Jennifer Lezeu of Ontario, Canada, leading the class of new recruits.
“Lezeu was a great gymnast early in her career, but then got hurt,” said Cattermole. “She can be a standout—she is very good on bars and floor and her beam is solid as well.”
Lezeu was a member of the Canada Senior National Team for three years and has competed in Slovania and Ukraine. Other freshmen that will help carry the load of the BYU gymnastics team include Emiko Ono, Holland Davis, Krysten Koval and Mickell Merrell.
The Cougar schedule always proves to be tough with all of the opponents usually ranked in the Top-20. BYU gymnasts will face 10-time national champion and in-state rival, Utah, as well as Boise State, Utah State, Oregon State, San Jose, SUU and Denver.
“If we’re going to beat somebody we need to put together a really good performance,” said Cattermole. “We can’t just show up and beat them; we need to perform at our best.”
BYU will depend on its young squad to overtake the vault as only two of the six vaulters from last year are returning. Goldman competed on the vault in every meet last season, scoring a career high of 9.775 against Utah State early in 2008. Donehue competed on the vault in all but three meets in the 2008 season, scoring a 9.850 career high.
Freshman Koval is a likely candidate for the vault but arrived at BYU with an injured back. Koval was a Region 3 vault champion before coming to BYU. Freshmen Davis and Ono are also possibilities for the vault as Davis placed second on vault at the 2008 Arizona State Championships and Ono finished second and third the last two years on vault at Hawaii’s state championship meet.
This season’s best event for the Cougars will be the uneven bars with four returning competitors.
“Our most consistent bar worker is McKell Poulson-Merkley,” said Cattermole. “When she came in here her freshman year, I was wondering what event she was going to make.”
Even though Poulson-Merkley was not expected to compete at BYU until later in her career, she worked hard and corrected her mistakes to land her a spot on the bar lineup in every meet for the Cougars since 2007—chalking up a career high of 9.825.
Along with Poulson-Merkley, Donehue also posted a 9.825 two times on the season to lead the Cougars. Johnson competed on the bars in every meet last season, scoring a season and career high of 9.850 against Southern Utah. Hough also competed on the bars in every meet for the Cougars last season, scoring a career best of 9.775 four different times.
Gallup returns to the beam squad this season after posting a 9.775 season high in 2008. Johnson will also add depth to the beam lineup as she competed on beam in all but one meet last season, posting a 9.750 career high.
“We lost virtually all of our floor workers,” said Cattermole. “But our young kids like McKell Merrell and Emiko Ono will be able to help us out.”
As Goldman will most likely be competing in the all-around competition, she too will be working the floor exercise. Last season she posted a 9.800 against Oregon State, a career best.
Sophomore Olsen competed twice on floor exercise last year, tumbling her way to a 9.525 season high against Southern Utah and will also help the Cougars in this event. Merrell was the floor state champion in Utah for three consecutive years and will set the tone for the tumbling gymnasts. At the 2008 Hawaii State Championships, Ono finished third on floor and will help the Cougars on the event as well.
“We’ve got a good group of kids and we’re going to compete by committee,” Cattermole said. “We have a couple of girls that can compete well on all four events, but we’re going to put together our six best kids on each event instead of having six hot-shot all-arounders.”