2001 Gymnastics Outlook

Jan. 2, 2001

Tempe, Ariz. - Just days after the world celebrated the birth of a new year, Arizona State women's gymnastics will celebrate the birth of their 26th season at the Maui Invitational, Friday, Jan. 5.

While the beauty of the surroundings will be tough to beat, so too will be the Sun Devils' competition. Themselves ranked 11th in the nation according to the preseason poll released the first of this year, the Sun Devils will meet No. 1 UCLA and No. 6 Nebraska in Hawaii.

It's an explosive start to what will surely be an exciting season.

Following is the ASU Gymnastics 2001 Season Outlook ...

The 2000 season was a silver one for Arizona State women's gymnastics, marking the 25th anniversary of the program. And the traditional gift for head coach John Spini should have been china, as he guided the Sun Devils for the 20th time. But the real gift that all were searching for was gold, as in an NCAA crown.

What they got instead may not have been coal, but it wasn't fine metal either. For only the fourth time in 19 years of cooperation with the NCAA, ASU failed to qualify for the national championship meet. For the first time ever, not a single Sun Devil represented the university on that national stage.

And yet at the dawn of the 2001 season, when Spini spoke of goose bumps on his skin, he wasn't referring to a frigid sting of defeat, but instead to an energetic optimism for what lies ahead. Because while the 2000 Sun Devils may have their own dubious distinction in the ASU record books, the 2001 team could be on the verge of a different groundbreaking achievement: a first NCAA Championship title.

'I'm really excited to get into the gym and work with this team every day,' Spini said. 'The overall feeling with this team is special, it gives me chills. It gives me absolute chills and I say, `Wow!' Because I watch how hard they work, and I watch the team chemistry, and I see kids who are excited to do gymnastics.'

At the epicenter of the excitement is senior co-captain Kelly Cowley. Cowley (formerly Kelly Christensen) is the only returning Sun Devil with an All-American tag to her name -- an honor she earned on the floor at nationals in 1999 -- but she certainly isn't the only Sun Devil with championship experience, as three of ASU's other nine returning letter-winners have competed under the lights of a Super Six.

Also ready to rumble is a foursome of newcomers led by junior transfer Laura Moon, a native of Scottsdale, Ariz., who returns to the Valley of the Sun after two outstanding years at Maryland where she competed at nationals and was named the team's MVP both years.

Equal parts youth and experience, ASU's 14 gymnasts are a diverse group of student-athletes universally joined by their amazing skill, strong work ethic and undeniable desire to compete. And it is that unity which could be the Sun Devils' most productive strength this year.

'We came into the season with the philosophy of trying to be the best fit team in the country: the strongest, the fastest, the kids that worked the hardest,' Spini said. 'Our whole team is hungry to be at the top of their game. It's a whole team, more focused on one goal instead of different personal agendas.

'After being here 21 years, I know that it's the chemistry that makes teams great. You know, we might not match up with a UCLA on paper, but with work ethic and heart, I'd put this team up against anyone.'

With dreams and aspirations for a national title carrying over from season to season, smaller goals will be set along the way this season. Already, Spini has highlighted ASU's two January meetings with aforementioned defending NCAA Champion UCLA as significant progress reports. Ditto that for the February meet against Utah in Salt Lake City, where the Utes drew over 9,000 fans a contest last season and haven't lost in 21 years.

Ultimately the road to gold runs through the regional meet and the Super Six in April, but Spini believes his team is capable of going the distance, even if they have to wear glass slippers.

'I really think this is going to be a Cinderella year for us,' Spini said. 'We could possibly do something we've never done before. We've been second four times, there's only one thing we haven't done.'

Only one. The season awaits.

The following is an event-by-event look at the 2001 ASU gymnastics team.

Last year the Sun Devils entered the season knowing that vault was a possible weakness in an otherwise indestructible attack. Although they rallied nicely from top to bottom to fill the void, in the end ASU's absence from nationals was an almost direct result of the lack of depth on vault.

This year, that should change. The advantage of last year's struggles is that ASU now boasts an experienced lineup in the vault, a rotation that will be bolstered by promising newcomers.

'Overall I think we've really improved our vault this year,' Spini said. 'Last year we only vaulted five kids, and they did a great job at regionals but it just wasn't enough. Now, we bring back talent from last year and add three to four solid vaulters. It really increases the whole outlook.

'Vault was the big setback last year, but this year it could be one of our strengths.'

The only key ingredient missing from the 2000 vault squad is Michelle Hess, who posted the second-best mark of the season and was a consistent threat to score 9.9 or better. The spotlight returner is Cowley, ASU's top vaulter and proven team-leader.

'Kelly (Cowley) is amazing,' Spini said. 'She's a charismatic athlete that has power, speed and flexibility in so many ways. She's going to work three events for us this year and she'll challenge to be an All-American in all three of them.'

Another major contributor back for her senior season is Cowley's fellow captain Kim Skinner.

'She (Skinner) overachieves with everything she does,' Spin said. 'She was a godsend to our team last year and has really helped us in trying to do harder vaults, to push bigger in that event.'

Spini is also delighted to bring back the sophomore duo of Cassidy Vreeke and Margaret Wojciak, who contributed in multiple events last year including vault.

'Cassidy (Vreeke) will be strong in the vault for us this year, and I think Margaret Wojciak will add some depth for us there as well,' Spini said.

Also available to Spini is the transfer Moon and freshmen Jada Cox and Maggie Germaine and Amber Giorgianni.

Uneven Bars
Cowley is again the Sun Devils' leading returner, coming off a season in which she improved her best from 9.825 to 9.925. Gone is All-American Elizabeth Reid, an elite performer in a trio of events that included bars.

But now enters Moon, who set a Maryland Terrapin season-high with a 9.925 in the event in 2000.

'Laura Moon is an exciting and powerful athlete that will work four events for us at the very highest level,' Spini said. 'When I see Laura, I think of the very best in gymnastics. She's a competitor that has a unique feeling for the execution of whatever event she's doing.'

Also ready to contribute are a handful of seasoned upper-classmen: Skinner, Becky Acker, Kristin Fanning, Rhonda Robinette and Ashley Stewart.

'In terms of depth, bars is very strong for us this year,' Spini said. 'We have exciting performers and our bars dismounts are at a higher level for a group of six or seven then we've ever had. Plus I think we're executing better, trying to be tighter and not take those little half-tenth deductions.'

Of all of his returnees, the performance of seniors Acker and Fanning could be a barometer for the success of the season. Acker is a well-rounded performer that Spini believes could step in and produce with breakthrough success in any of the four events.

Fanning is coming off a major improvement from a 9.775 best in 1999, to 9.9 effort in 2000. If she stays healthy, she's like to be a paramount component of ASU's tour de force on the bars, Spini said.

Robinette, a junior, is a model of consistency for the Sun Devils' bars rotation and with minor changes can make the leap to the next level, Spini said. Skinner and sophomore Wojciak each recorded 9.9s in 2000 and will look to repeat and improve those numbers this time around.

Stewart and sophomore Shannon Geary will be counted on for depth.

Balance Beam
The crystal ball is a bit foggy when trying to foresee the Sun Devils' future on the beam. Clearly visible is the gap left by the graduation of Reid, who as a freshman earned a national title in the event, and McNabb. Which is not to mention the departure of Lea Carver, who as a sophomore reached heights of 9.925 last season.

'The loss of Lea Carver certainly hurts our consistency,' Spini said. 'But again we add Laura Moon. I think she can step up and take Lea's place with her consistently impressive performances.'

Moon also has a 9.925 on her resume, giving Spini good reason to be optimistic. Ashley Ellsberry only adds to the enthusiasm of the 21st-year coach, as she enters into a sophomore campaign that Spini believes will see her challenge for an All-America spot.

Robinette will seek try to rejuvenate the form that saw her score a 9.9 on beam in 1999. Vreeke, too, has displayed tremendous potential, turning in a best of 9.875 before the end of her freshman season.

Critical to the Sun Devils' success on beam will be the performance of freshmen Germaine and Amber Giorgianni, both of whom Spini believes will thrive under the coaching of associate head coach Kristen Smyth.

'If there is an event where I'm worried about depth, it's the balance beam,' Spini said. 'But with an increased focus, I'm looking for that to be one of our strengths, too. We've produced so many All-Americans in beam the last three or four years that I really believe that my excellent coaching staff led by Kristen Smyth and Roe Kreutzer will make it a positive event for us.'

Floor Exercise
Much like on beam, personnel changes present the Sun Devils with a challenge on the floor, however Spini remains confident that this perennially strong event for ASU will remain such in 2001.

Once again, the loss of Carver and All-Americans McNabb and Reid create cause for concern. However, the return of Cowley -- an All-American in the event in 1999 -- and the arrival of Moon, Germaine and Giorgianni are reasons for enthusiastic anticipation.

The experience of Acker, Ellsberry, Fanning and Vreeke again becomes a plus as this group of dynamic performers comes together to perfect incredible floor routines with Coach Smyth.

'The thing I'm happiest about with floor is that we have some really unique routines this year,' Spini said. 'Again, that comes down to coaching, and Kristen Smyth is certainly one of the top two or three floor choreographers in the nation. In my book she's the best.

'With that coaching in place and with the girls' work ethic, floor has really stepped up a notch from the beginning of the year. Our success is dependent upon setting those routines and making sure we concentrate on our performance level.

'At the moment we have two great, experienced performers. By the end of the season, we're going to have about seven kids that get out there and perform really well.'

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