Breaking Boundaries – NCAA Teams To Watch! Part 3

Up next: The Minnesota Golden Gophers

By Ashlee Buhler for Inside Gymnastics

Since the time women’s gymnastics was introduced as an NCAA championship sport in 1982, only six teams have won a national title. In recent years, conference titles have been tossed back and forth between the same two or three teams.

The tide seems to shift every few years and new teams emerge as ones to watch. However, it does not happen overnight. A college team on the rise begins with a coaching staff that is experienced, but also knows how to bring out the best in their athletes. It continues with strong recruiting—finding athletes who are not only talented and passionate about the sport, but who show leadership qualities on and off the competition floor. It combinates when the sparkly leotards are on and the lights come up; the hard work in the gym, the talent on the roster, and the cohesiveness as a team leads to success on the competition floor. Those who can keep this cycle going over time will eventually find themselves breaking the boundaries. And the tide will shift again.

In this three-part series, we take an in-depth look at some NCAA gymnastics teams who are on the rise that we think could shake up the rankings. Up next: Minnesota.

One cannot discuss teams on the rise without mentioning the Golden Gophers. In recent years they have been on a steady upward climb and giving the nation’s best a run for their money. The program fell into good hands in 2015 when former Gopher gymnast Jenny Hansen took over as head coach. Coming in, Hansen said her focus for the program was building off previous success athletically, while also creating a culture that allowed athletes to thrive personally.

“I have been here a really long time and even when I was on the team, we had a program in which the focus was more than just gymnastics,” Hansen said. “We were cared for as people first and foremost and then guided into reaching our goals. Our staff wants the same for our athletes. We want to help in providing them an experience of a lifetime here at Minnesota while teaching and providing the tools to be a successful student, athlete, teammate and person while they are with us but also for after their graduation.”

History Under Hansen

Under Hansen’s guidance, Minnesota has become a force in the Big 10 conference and quiet contenders for a trip to the NCAA Championships. The last time the team qualified to the NCAA Championships was in 2016, which was Hansen’s first official season as head coach after serving in the interim head coach in 2015.

One of her first star athletes was Lindsey Mable. In 2015 she held the top spot in the national All-Around rankings for two consecutive weeks—the first for a Gopher gymnast. She also broke the program’s All-Around record with a score of 39.675. Her scores of 10 on vault and 9.975 on floor (which she did six times) still hold at the top of the program record book.

Mable helped put Minnesota on the radar, but she did not act alone. Hannah Nordquist was the team’s beam queen, scoring a perfect 10 on the event during her senior year in 2016, in addition to scoring a 9.9125 and finishing fourth on the event at the NCAA Championships.

2016 was one of the team’s strongest years in history. After winning a share of the regular season Big 10 title in 2013 and 2014, the Gophers won it outright for the first time in 2016. They nearly went undefeated, only losing one meet during the regular season, and capped it off with a full team presence at the NCAA Championships. Although they finished in 12th place, the season itself served as a reminder to not count Minnesota out.

A Successful Season

2020 was a breakthrough year for the Gophers. As a team they posted the second highest score in program history (197.625). For two weeks, they were ranked No. 1 in the nation on beam after posting the top two scores on the event in program history.

The Gophers were on a role, until the COVID-19 pandemic cut the season short. They finished the season finished the season in 10th place, as well as fourth on beam.

Hansen attributes the team’s success to having consistency within the coaching staff. This season will mark the seventh year that Hansen, Gerlaen Stack-Eaton and Rich Stenger have been with the program, making Minnesota’s coaching staff the longest tenured in the Big 10 conference.

“This has allowed us to create, design and build our vision for the program together, with each one of us truly invested in the success of this program,” Hansen said. “Over this time, we have spent a great amount of time developing the culture of the program and recruiting the right young women who want to help build the program we all envision. Ever year over the last seven years, our culture has continued to grow and get stronger. We have tremendous young women on our team that truly love the sport and are committed to getting better each and every day.”

Talented recruits are a major component of a successful team. Senior Ona Loper has been a gem for the Gophers, proving to be a steady All-Arounder in addition to a top-notch vaulter. Last season she scored the first perfect 10 of her career on vault. Ivy Lu, who concluded her career in 2020, was a staple in the bar and beam lineups. Her career highs of 9.975 on bars, which she did four times, and 10 on beam have her name at the top of the history books. However, it is senior Lexy Ramler who has taken the NCAA and Minnesota Gymnastics by storm.

Ramler, the 2019 Co-Big 10 All-Around champion, currently holds the program record in the All-Around, bars, and beam. She is also the first gymnast in the programs history to score multiple 10s in one season. Last season was shaping up to be one of her strongest when everything came to a halt. She ended the season ranked first in the nation on beam, sixth on bars, and eighth in the All-Around.

Ramler is the kind of athlete any team would gladly welcome onto their team due to her talent, but her decision to come to Minnesota was about more than just gymnastics.

“I was interested in Minnesota for the excellent academics, personable coaching staff, well-rounded team culture, and that it was close to home,” Ramler said. “I love my state of Minnesota and it makes me so honored to wear the M every meet.”

The Look Ahead

Winning a conference title is the goal for any collegiate sports team. Minnesota has won five Big 10 titles; however, it has alluded them since 2006. The goal is to make that happen this year.

Minnesota had a strong start to the 2021 season, posting a 197.025 in their season opener. That score was good for a No. 4 spot in the national rankings right out of the gates. As it stands, Minnesota is ranked 12th in the nation, not far off from where Hansen wants to see her team on a consistent basis.

“We want to be a top 10 program year in and year out at Minnesota as well as contend for Big 10 Championship and a spot at the National Championships every year,” Hansen said.

Ramler said those goals remain intact, yet the team also recognizes the uncertainty of this season. Having a grateful attitude is the one thing in their control.

“Each year the team sets many goals for the season, including Big 10 Champs as well as Nationals and those goals remain,” Ramler said. “But we also understand the uncertainty this year. Still, in practice we are focusing on the little things in order for those goals to become a reality. This year a lot of the team’s focus is being grateful for each competition, each practice, and each other as this year is unique in its own and we are just thankful that we have the opportunity to do the sport we love.”

Photo credit: University of Minnesota

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