Come Friday morning, the Palestra will be nearly unrecognizable to its basketball season regulars.
For the first time in the University’s history, the Cathedral of College Basketball will host the USA Gymnastics Collegiate Nationals from April 10-12 for three days of intense team and individual competition.
The weekend’s meet features eight teams from around the country, including familiar faces from Brown and Yale. The rest of the field consists of teams from Air Force, Bridgeport, Lindenwood, Seattle Pacific and Texas Woman’s University.
Given the home-court advantage and Penn’s status as reigning Ivy League champions, the stakes for the Quakers could not be higher.
“Every tenth counts. Every wobble counts,” junior all-arounder Elyse Shenberger said.
This is not the first rodeo for the Hummelstown, Pa., native — back in 2012, Shenberger earned Second Team USAG honors for her performance on bars. However, this season, the junior — along with the rest of the Quakers’ squad — has her sights set on bigger and better things.
After a solid-but-not-stellar performance at ECAC Championships in March, USAG’s could very well be a shot at redemption for Penn against its Ivy League foes.
“Coming off of ECACs, I think we still have room to prove ourselves,” Shenberger said.
Although the Red and Blue narrowly defeated both the Bears and Elis at the Ivy Classic in February, they were unable to continue their Ancient Eight streak of dominance during ECACs, where the Quakers finished fourth behind both Ivy squads.
“We know what they can do, and we know what we can do,” Shenberger said. “Everybody is getting really pumped to go out with a bang and really hit our routines.”
Indeed, in a sport where tenths of points often determine the difference between first and second place — Penn’s Ivy League title over Brown was decided by .300 points — how the Quakers finish their 2015 campaign could very possibly come down to whether Penn sticks all of its landings or bobbles its dismounts.
But the team isn’t letting the pressure get to them. Instead, they are focusing on the “controllables” and trying to take things one small step at a time.
The first step, then, will be qualifying for finals, set to take place on Saturday. Getting there means that the squad will need to finish in the top half of its four-team flight during Friday’s preliminary round.
“That’s the main part,” coach John Ceralde said.
That task alone is a challenge in and of itself, as the team has not made it through to the second day of team competition since the 2011-12 season.
“We’ve had several good meets throughout the year, but we’re still looking for the 24-for-24,” Ceralde said. “That means hit all our routines.”
Given the Palestra magic, that goal might just be within reach for the Quakers.
“It’s really exciting that it’s at the Palestra this year because we’ve always done great things there,” senior captain Kaitlyn Reszkowski said. “It is a little bit of a home-field advantage because we get a lot of fans.”
The second important thing for the team will be to keep a razor-like focus.
“The coaches tell us that you can only control yourself, so essentially the other teams don’t matter,” Reszkowski said. “We try to keep everyone really loud and cheer each other on as much as we can so you don’t hear anyone else but Penn.”
But no matter how special the Palestra environment may be, and no matter how loud the gymnastics team can cheer from the sidelines, the way in which Penn caps off its season will depend on who shows up with their game faces on Friday.
“Unlike other sports, it doesn’t matter so much what you do beforehand,” Reszkowski said. “It’s right then and there.”
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