nicolesirbalus

In the Red and Blue's last competition, sophomore Nicole Swirbalus took to the vault for the first time in her Penn career, starting the event off with a 9.325.

Will the real Penn gymnastics please stand up?

After opening the season with two meets that represented the team’s two highest scores since February 2015, the Quakers followed that historic stretch up with a stunning upset at the hands of Division II West Chester, one that represented Penn’s lowest team score in 35 months.

Fortunately, the country won’t have to wait long to see which team the Red and Blue really are.

This Sunday, Penn will return to the Palestra for its second home competition of the year, hosting North Carolina State, Bridgeport and Cornell in the team’s annual “Pink Meet” to raise breast cancer awareness.

“We’re all ready to prove to everyone that the team that we were last weekend is not who we are; we are the 193 and 194 [point] team, and everyone is just so excited to show that,” sophomore Nicole Swirbalus said. “We’ve also been working so hard in practice this week, so I think everyone’s ready.”

Beyond the understandable motivation springing from last week’s season-low 189.3-point effort, another advantage for the Red and Blue (3-2, 2-0 Ivy) will be the Palestra itself. In Penn’s first home meet, the Quakers shocked Yale in a wild comeback win en route to putting up 193.575 points — still the highest all year by any Ivy League team — providing optimism that the historic venue could help boost the Quakers once again.

“It’s always fun to be home,” senior captain Rachel Graham said. “Especially since its a quad meet, it’s going to be super, super loud, with more fans, more teams in there — just more energy.”

Still, these benefits will be countered by a strong field that the Red and Blue will welcome on Sunday.

Based on national rankings, No. 28 NC State (2-5, 0-0 East Atlantic Gymnastics League) will be the favorite coming in. With NC State’s worst score of the year sitting 0.325 above Penn’s season high, the Wolf Pack will provide one of the Red and Blue’s stiffest tests all year.

Meanwhile, No. 48 Bridgeport (7-2, 1-0 ECAC D-II) may be a Division II school, but as the Quakers found out the hard way last week at West Chester, that status doesn’t mean it won’t be competitive. In fact, the Purple Knights are the one of just two teams nationwide (joining George Washington) with a better record against Ivy League teams than No. 56 Penn itself, as Bridgeport has already topped Brown twice and Yale once in the young season.

And though No. 58 Cornell (2-5, 0-1 Ivy) already fell to Penn once at the Lindsey Ferris Invitational, the Big Red can’t be slept on. Cornell won both the Ivy Classic and the ECAC Championships a year ago, and its score of 193.525 last weekend represented the Ivy League’s second-best score this season.

“I don’t think the teams that we compete against ever really affect our mentality going in, because we know that we just have to go out there and do the routines that we’ve practiced,” Swirbalus said. “[Coach] John [Ceralde] always tells us to only focus on Penn when we’re at the meets.”

If that focus leads to greater consistency across the board, the Red and Blue should be in good shape. Last week at West Chester, the Quakers saw six of their 24 routines result in scores of 9.000 or less — after none of the team’s 24 scored as such against Yale — forcing Penn to seek out a solution quickly.

“We’re all just trying to hit; that’s our main goal, to hit 24-for-24 routines,” Swirbalus said. “And that’s really what we’ve been trying to do in practice this week, a lot of team events.”

Ultimately, with both conference championship meets still weeks in advance, this Sunday won’t necessarily define the Red and Blue’s season.

But if the Quakers can prove their mental toughness by shoving last week behind them, we could finally see their “Jekyll and Hyde” conundrum end once and for all.

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