The 2006 season will mark the dawn of a new era for Arizona gymnastics. Gone is a class of six of the most successful gymnasts in program history, and in are seven young, yet very talented athletes. While experience may be lacking, the Wildcats will rely on their youth to provide a spark as the program looks to rebuild into a Pac-10 contender.
Behind the leadership of six seniors, the 2005 Wildcats placed second at the Pac-10 Championships last March en route to their 19th-consecutive NCAA Regional appearance. The team finished the season tied for 18th in the nation with a 24-11 record.
It may seem like a daunting task to match the success of recent squads, but Head Coach Bill Ryden has been here before. In fact, the Wildcats found themselves in a similar position just four years ago when last year’s seniors entered the program.
“We didn’t know quite what to expect,” Ryden said. “But of course, history shows that they had amazing careers.”
This year, 11 of the 14 gymnasts on the Arizona roster are either freshmen or sophomores. However, that doesn’t mean talent is lacking.
“We definitely have some big shoes to fill,” Ryden said. “You can’t replace what those girls did for us last year. They were special to me. But this is a new era. We’ve got a new team and we’re ready to go. On paper, we’re very talented.”
The Wildcats will look to their lone senior, Erin Muirhead, to provide leadership. Muirhead underwent surgery on her foot midway through last season, but has since recovered and returned to competition.
“Erin is back to training,” Ryden said. “She was forced to stop halfway through the season last year. She is our team captain this year so it is really a positive that she’s available.”
Senior Team Captain Erin Muirhead
Senior Team Captain Erin Muirhead
Junior Aubrey Taylor, now one of the veterans on the team, will also be counted on bring consistency and leadership to the lineup. She, too, missed some time in the off-season after having thumb surgery, but isn’t expected to be limited this season.
“Aubrey will certainly help fill a leadership role,” Ryden said. “And she will do it as much by example. She’s got the most competitive experience out there because she’s been an all-arounder or at least a three-event competitor the last two years. She’s been a major player the entire time she’s been here.”
Even though the Wildcats were led mainly by upperclassmen a year ago, a pair of freshmen stepped in and provided not only depth, but also consistent scoring in multiple events. Danielle Hicks and Karin Wurm became mainstays in the lineup, and Hicks even emerged as an all-around competitor half way through the season. Both return healthy this year, and have impressed the coaches thus far in their sophomore seasons.
Ryden expects Wurm, Hicks and Taylor to fill the void left by the departed seniors that were key contributors in multiple events last year.
“Danielle and Karin are really blossoming right now,” said Ryden. “So, if all three of them are at the top of their game, then that would be literally half of our lineup taken care of by three very, very good athletes. Certainly, that would take away pressure if all three of those girls are consistent for us.”
Also returning are junior Jamie Holton and sophomore Rachelle Silberg. Holton underwent shoulder surgery over the summer, and her impact is still uncertain heading into the year. The coaching staff would like to see her back performing on vault and floor as she did a year ago. Silberg is again expected to be a key contributor on the vault.
From here, the Wildcats have some questions, not in talent, but in what they can expect in performance on a consistent basis. Melanie Weiser returns after redshirting her freshmen year, and is joined by seven true freshmen. The newcomers have been impressive during the fall, but their spots in the lineup are still uncertain. What is certain is the fact that some of the freshmen will have to step in immediately and contribute.
“The freshmen are going to have to contribute whether we like it or not,” Ryden said. “There will be no slow learning curve for them. All we can do is get them battle-tested in the gym, which is not all that easy, and then they will be learning and improving as the season goes on.”
Two of the newcomers that the coaches are excited about are Sarah Parsons and Sarah Specht, but both may be limited slightly due to injury. Parsons (ankle) and Specht (elbow) could add much needed depth if fully healthy, as will classmates Alexis Greene, Suzanne Alvey, Erica Anderson, Bree Workman and Briana Bergeson.
“Both of the Sarah’s are coming off of injury, and if they can come around certainly they will help us quite a bit,” Ryden said. “Alexis looks really good as does Suzanne. Briana and Bree will probably compete in two to three events. Erica took a break over the summer, and is coming back trying to get her skills and add some depth.”
One of the events the Wildcats will look for immediate freshmen help is on the vault. While four gymnasts return that contributed a year ago, the top three scorers have since departed. Katie Johnson averaged an amazing 9.840 per vault, while Monica Bisordi chipped in an average of 9.762 in the event. Those numbers will be tough to match, but the Wildcats will rely on steady improvement from their returning vaulters as well as solid scoring from their freshman class.
The top two returning vaulters are Silberg and Wurm. Silberg solidified herself a spot in the rotation early in the season last year and showed steady improvement throughout the year, sticking a 9.900 at the Pac-10 Championships.
Sophomore Karin Wurm
Wurm also stepped into the vault rotation early on and became the team’s most consistent underclassman by season’s end, averaging a score of 9.710.
A third freshman, Hicks, also was also a key contributor throughout the year. She has been working on a few new skills since the end of last year to boost her scoring.
“Right now, our two strongest vaulters are Rachelle and Karin,” Ryden said. “We’ve been working on a bunch of different things with Danielle.”
The coaches are also hopeful Taylor can return to the vault rotation after not competing in the event in 2005. She was a consistent member of the Wildcats’ vault team in her freshman season, when she also competed as an all-arounder.
Arizona will also have to rely on some freshman talent. As expected, the freshmen got off to a bit of a slow start in official practices during the fall, but have since started to show their promise, in particular Workman, Greene and Alvey.
“We will need freshmen help,” Ryden said. “We have three freshmen that are really starting to show well: Bree Workman, Alexis Greene and Suzanne Alvey. That said, we’re also hoping that Aubrey can come back and vault so she can compete in the all-around.”
The staff is also hopeful that injuries to Parsons and Specht will heal up soon enough that they can get competitive experience this year as well.
“Two of the strongest vaulters in the freshman class are the two Sarahs,” Ryden said. “If they can get healthy, then all of a sudden we have a surplus. We’re really anxious to see them come back.”
The bars was one of the Wildcats’ more inconsistent events in 2005, but that was the case for the majority of the teams around the country due to some of the rule changes and the way judges scored the event. Arizona will again be replacing four mainstays in the lineup, but returns three solid bar workers, including Taylor, who has been one of the team’s most consistent scorers in the event for the last two years.
Taylor, with an average score of 9.758, as well as sophomores Hicks and Wurm are back on bars. Hicks averaged a score of 9.713, third best on the team, while Wurm hit a 9.8 or better four times last season, including a career-best 9.825 at the NCAA South Central Regional Championships.
“I’m positive Aubrey will be fine and she was our best bar worker last year,” Ryden said. “Karin and Danielle are ready to go right now.”
Junior Aubrey Taylor
Again, Arizona will have to rely on contributions from its freshmen. The coaches think they have the talent to put a strong lineup on the floor each meet.
“We do have some freshmen that are very good at bars,” Ryden said. “Alexis and Sarah Parsons have been doing very good. Suzanne and Briana have been working hard, and Sarah Specht is great on bars if she can be fully healthy. I think we’ll be solid at the beginning of the year and I expect that event to get stronger as the year goes on.”
Like bars, beam was not the most consistent event last year for Arizona, but when the Wildcats were on, it was a good scoring event. The team scored a 49.350 at the Pac-10 Championships to capture second place. The Wildcats lost five of their top contributors from 2005, but should have a solid core of returning players to pace the scoring.
As a freshman, Hicks stepped in and was a vital part of the team’s beam lineup. She averaged a score of 9.690 and set a career high of 9.875. Also back is Taylor, who struggled a bit in the event early in the season, but became much more consistent down the stretch, hitting back-to-back scores of 9.850 in the final regular season meet and at the Pac-10 Championships. Wurm should also become a regular in the rotation after only performing in exhibitions last year.
“We’re replacing four or five seniors that competed in our rotation nearly every meet, and they were good,” Ryden said. “Danielle is back and looks great, and she was our most consistent beam worker last year. I would expect Karin to be full-time in the lineup this year, as well as Aubrey. Both of them should be mainstays.”
The Wildcats will also turn to the senior Muirhead, who has only competed in exhibitions, as well as the junior Holton, who has yet to compete on beam at Arizona. The freshmen will also get extended looks, especially Bergeson, who has been the most impressive early on.
The coaching staff knows that there is little experience returning, but they won’t be asking for too much too soon from the group.
“You want to have a beam team that can deliver night-in-and-night-out,” said Ryden. “They don’t have to have the world’s most difficulty, that’s nice, but you can learn that stuff. First, we have to learn how to compete. Counting falls right from the beginning certainly will put you in a hole scoring-wise. We need to have six girls that can go out and hit in that first meet.”
The Wildcats’ strongest event looks to be on floor. Despite the loss of Johnson, who hit 9.9 or better four times in 2005, along with Bisordi and Jamie Duce, Arizona returns four gymnasts that were significant contributors throughout the year.
Wurm was a consistent scorer throughout her freshman season, averaging a score of 9.712 and establishing a career best of 9.850. She will be supported by Taylor, who also earned a season-high of 9.850, as well as Hicks, Holton and Muirhead. Hicks competed on floor in each of team’s last six meets, averaging a 9.663. Holton made nine appearances in the Wildcats’ floor rotation, chipping in an average score of 9.667. Muirhead only competed in one meet, but made the most of the opportunity with a 9.800 performance at California.
Sophomore Danielle Hicks
“We are stacked on floor. It will be fun,” Ryden said. “We have some amazing tumblers. Virtually everybody is tumbling very well. I would expect last year’s floor people to be ready. Karin has already learned new tumbling, as have Danielle and Aubrey. I would expect all of them to be very good.”
Floor also happens to be one of the stronger events for many of the freshmen. Depending upon how healthy Muirhead and Holton are early in the season, the freshmen could become key components of the floor rotation.
“As for the freshmen, floor is one of their strengths,” Ryden said. “Workman, Greene, Bergeson and Specht are tumbling quite well.”
It won’t be easy overcoming the loss of Bisordi, the program’s all-time leading scorer. The way the Wildcats hope to combat her loss is to fill in the lineup with three consistent all-arounders, something the team didn’t have last year, even with Bisordi.
Hicks returns as an all-arounder after entering the floor rotation for the final six meets. She set a career high of 39.225 in the final home meet of the season, and with an improved vault, should score higher this season.
The coaches are also looking to have Taylor become an all-arounder again, as well as to work Wurm into the beam rotation, the one event she didn’t perform on a year ago.
“I would expect Danielle to be a consistent all-arounder again,” Ryden said. “We are getting Karin ready on beam to be an all-arounder, and Aubrey is learning a 10.0 vault so she can return as an all-arounder. Those three are all very good competitors. They very much fit the mold of a Monica Bisordi or Katie Johnson as far as being able to go out each night and hit. If those three are all doing all-around, then we are sitting pretty well.”