Gymnasts' closeness drew Mable to NCAA meet-bound Gophers

  • Article by: RACHEL BLOUNT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 18, 2013 - 12:09 AM

The Gophers, led by freshman Lindsay Mable, will be competing as a team in the NCAA meet this weekend for the first time since 2002.

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Lindsay Mable can trace it all the way back to her first unofficial visit to the Gophers’ gym, when the Colorado native still was scouting out college gymnastics programs. She saw plenty of gifted individuals, which didn’t surprise her. But it was the way they behaved together that made Mable think she had stumbled onto something unique.

“There was a bond, a sisterhood,” Mable said. “You go to some schools, and the girls on the team aren’t even friends. They’re just together in the gym. But the way the girls here cared for each other, you knew it was special.”

So special, in fact, that Mable believed the Gophers could accomplish something they hadn’t done since 2002: qualify for the NCAA team championships. With a big boost from her spectacular freshman season, the Gophers finished second in the Gainesville, Fla., regional earlier this month to advance to the 12-team championships that begin Friday at UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion.

The Gophers (25-6) enter the meet ranked eighth in the nation, making the top 10 for the first time in 11 seasons. They went 6-1 in the Big Ten to tie Michigan for the first regular-season championship awarded by the conference. Mable became the first Gophers gymnast to be named Big Ten Freshman of the Year since Gena Palm in 1989. She was joined on the all-Big Ten first team by senior Shannon Golich from Illinois, and sophomore Kylie Schermann of Lakeville.

Like Mable, head coach Meg Stephenson — in her 20th season on the Gophers staff — also recognized an aura about this group. All of them paid their own expenses for summer school so they could begin training together sooner, building both their skills and their relationships. That dedication, Stephenson said, set the stage for one of the best seasons in program history.

“I said in the very beginning of the year that this is a special group,” said Stephenson, named the Big Ten and North Central Region Coach of the Year. “I had high expectations because of their great camaraderie, their work ethic and their chemistry.

“They have a really deep desire to be successful, to win Big Tens and get to nationals. That’s been a goal for years and years. But in this group, we could really see the fire and the commitment they were willing to put forth to make that happen.”

Stephenson said the Gophers have long cultivated the inclusiveness and supportive atmosphere that attracted Mable and allowed her to flourish. Mable was Big Ten co-champion on balance beam, and tied program records — and was second team All-America — in floor exercise (9.975) and all-around (39.600). At the regional, she was co-champion on vault with teammate Jenny Covers.

Given their talent, Stephenson expected Mable and fellow rookies Madie Hanley from Pennsylvania and Hanna Nordquist of Otsego to excel as freshmen. It helped, Mable said, that the upperclassmen welcomed them so warmly. Their assistance and friendship extended beyond the gym, and their bond led them to set a preseason goal of making the NCAA tournament.

In the past, Stephenson said, the Gophers have not always had the unshakable confidence necessary to win championships. A strong start this season gave them an early boost, and their well-balanced lineup proved remarkably consistent. In January, they upset top-ranked Michigan ► at the Sports Pavilion ◄ — the first time the Gophers had defeated a No. 1 team — and rolled to 197.225 points in a victory over No. 20 Ohio State last month, the second-highest score in program history.

“At the beginning of the season, we knew how good we could be,” Mable said. “I think it was kind of shocking to everyone else. When we started being successful, it was like, ‘Oh, let’s see if they can do it again.’ And we did. We proved ourselves.”

Immediately after making the NCAA tournament field, the Gophers set a new aim: to finish in the top three in their semifinal round Friday, which would put them into the Super Six competing for the team crown on Saturday. The top four individuals on each event in each of the two semifinals will advance to the event finals Sunday.

The gymnasts also are mindful of the bigger picture. Stephenson said that returning to the NCAA tournament is a huge milestone for the program, and Mable said she and her teammates view this season as a starting point rather than as an end in itself.

“We all believe with the culture and leadership we have, this is not a one-time thing,” Mable said. “Now that we’ve done it, we’re setting our sights on making it common.”

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