Some sporting events appear to be scripted.
Saturday at the Palestra, Penn gymnastics hosted the ECAC Championships. Six other teams were at the meet, but the Quakers’ most formidable competition was not an Ivy foe, but rather a Towson squad that had outscored Penn twice already this season.
But the Red and Blue’s third chance at the Tigers proved to be the charm, and Penn captured its first ECAC title since 2004, by the slimmest of margins — 25 thousandths of a point.
One has to wonder whether the tournament organizers consciously scheduled Penn to follow Towson on every event. It certainly added to the drama.
After the first two exercises, Towson held a 0.2-point lead despite the Quakers besting the Tigers on bars and posting a program-best score on vault, where defending champion Dana Bonincontri posted a near-perfect 9.9.
The meet was only halfway complete, but the score difference was daunting for Penn. The two exercises unquestionably were the Quakers’ strengths this year.
Next up was beam, the bane of Towson’s bid for a sixth consecutive ECAC championship last year. Once again, the apparatus vexed the Tigers. Two of their gymnasts fell, and they posted a 47.8.
The door was wide open for the Quakers, but on Penn’s first routine, junior Kirsten Strausbaugh fell. Three routines later, another Quakers gymnast stumbled. Penn took a slim 0.05-point lead.
“I didn’t feel that we missed an opportunity,” coach John Ceralde said. “I felt that as long as we were in line with them, I knew we had a shot at it on floor.”
But on paper, Penn needed a miracle to win. The Quakers had averaged 47.673 on floor for the season, their worst exercise. And the Tigers had surpassed the 49-point threshold in their previous two meets.
Towson went first on floor and posted a 48.9, setting the bar high for the Red and Blue at 48.85. Their season-best was a 48.5.
The first three gymnasts to take the floor for Penn all put up respectable scores, but none hit the 9.77 mark, which the Quakers needed to average over five scores — the lowest of six is dropped — to catch Towson.
Then, freshman and ECAC Rookie of the Year nominee Amber Woo scored a 9.8. Bonincontri followed with a 9.825.
Penn had a shot, and it was up to Strausbaugh.
“I love competing floor,” she said. “It’s my favorite routine.”
Strausbaugh had dominated on bars, yet faltered on beam. Then, none of it mattered. She was the last gymnast of 76, the last routine of 168, and for Penn, the last hope at avenging two losses to Towson. She needed a 9.85 to tie.
Gymnastics isn’t like basketball, where score changes are instantly updated as they occur. In gymnastics, judges reveal individual routine scores, but team scores are not announced until the end of each round.
So when the judging table held up a scorecard announcing Strausbaugh had received a 9.875, the stands weren’t thrown into a frenzy. It didn’t matter. From the moment the music had concluded after Strausbaugh’s routine, the team knew it had notched a dramatic victory and their third ECAC championship.
“Every time I’ve asked the team … to finish, they’ve always come up big,” Ceralde said.
“Everyone knew if they hit, we could do it,” Strausbaugh added. “[In past meets], everyone had not hit their routine.”
The biggest stat of the night was Penn’s overall score, a 194.4, the second-highest in program history.
Perhaps as exciting as winning the title is the fact that most of its roster returns next year.
There will always be this year. But — and any Quakers fan can say this without chagrin — there’s also next year too.