It seemed unprecedented only days ago, but Penn gymnastics has a target on its back.
So when the Quakers take to the mats for the first time since last weekend’s eye-opening performance in a home showdown against Yale, the task for coach John Ceralde’s squad will be simple: prove that their stellar season opener was no fluke.
After Penn (2-1, 1-0 Ivy) finished in last place at the 2016 Ivy Classic and proceeded to graduate a quintet of seniors who all qualified for last spring’s USA Gymnastics Collegiate Nationals, few outside the Quakers’ locker room expected the Red and Blue to immediately vault back into title contention.
But after a second-place effort last week including a team score of 193.275 — Penn’s best in any meet since February 2015 — the nation quickly learned that the twelve-time Ivy Classic champions are back in business.
The breakout performance catapulted Penn up to No. 42 in Division I, the highest out of the Ivy League and the entire ECAC, making the Quakers the prohibitive league favorites early on.
“We had confidence coming in, but I think we ended up doing better than we thought we could; everyone was just really excited and really focused, and it all fell together,” said junior captain Kyra Levi, who was Penn’s only gymnast to individually win an event with a phenomenal 9.850 on the bars. “We had heard we were capable of it — everyone told us we were capable of it — but we proved it to ourselves, and it’s exciting knowing we can build off that.”
Having already topped one Ivy League rival last weekend in No. 55 Cornell, the Red and Blue will get a chance to ride that momentum against a No. 58 Yale (0-4, 0-0) team that they’ve built quite a bit of familiarity with.
In 2016, the Quakers bested the Bulldogs by a mere 0.850 points in a dual meet, finished one place behind Yale at the Ivy Classic, then responded to finish two spots ahead of the Elis at the ECAC Championships to take the season series.
Despite the recent history, though, athletes and coaches insist there’s no rivalry brewing.
“We compete the same against any team,” said senior captain Rachel Graham, the team’s lone USAG Nationals finalist a year ago. “Going into each meet, we do the same routines, and we’re just as focused against anybody.”
If the name on the opponents’ uniforms doesn’t add extra emotion to the meet, though, the competition’s setting has to give an extra boost to athletes and fans alike.
Not only will Saturday represent the home opener — and just one of three home meets all season — for the Quakers, but it is also part of Penn’s first-ever “Beauty and the Beast” joint-sport event, as both Penn gymnastics and wrestling will simultaneously be competing in the Palestra.
“This is something I think all of us have heard of other schools doing, and it seemed to be really successful in other situations,” Levi said. “It’s pretty cool to come together with another Penn team, since we don’t ever really get to do that in different sports.”
Once the judges signal the start of competition, though, it will be all business for the Quakers — and if all goes as planned, the Red and Blue will leave no doubt on their status as conference title contenders.
“I think [last week] really set the tone for the rest of this season, and everyone’s just really pumped up to get back into the gym and keep improving,” said sophomore captain Caroline Moore, whose 29.275 points was Penn’s highest all-around total in that meet. “Every meet counts more than the last one.”