Call them the "Swaggy Six," "Super Sophs", or the "Bars Bunch"; no matter the alias, Penn gymnastics will be tough to beat this year due to a record breaking crop of sophomores on the bars.
Sophomores are usually some of the more inexperienced members of a college sports team, but for this group, that is not the case. Sophomores Emma Cullen, Kellie Flavin, Alex Kothe, and Caroline Mitsch all competed on bars in each of Penn’s ten meets last season. Tara Mills and Natalie Borden, the remaining sophomores, competed in bars in five and two meets respectively.
This experience allows the sophomores to go into competition season without the nervous “butterflies” that plague many underclassmen, which has coach John Ceralde excited.
“I feel that we have a lot of opportunity and that there is a lot of room for success ahead of us,” Ceralde said about the upcoming season.
Not only do these sophomores have experience competing, though, they have experience dominating.
Cullen heads into her second season already having her name in Penn’s record books — her 9.925 on bars at Temple on March 12 last year was the second-best score in team history, and the best since 2004. Penn posted a team score of 49.200 on the day, the highest in program history.
But Cullen is far from the only sophomore standout in the event. In fact, it was actually Flavin who was named last season’s team Rookie of the Year. The versatile Flavin qualified USAG Nationals in floor, vault, and bars last season, with a seasonal best of 9.775 on bars at the ECAC Championships.
Kothe, a bars specialist, set a season-high mark at 9.825 in the event, also at the March 12 Temple meet. Mitsch, also a bars specialist, consistently put in top-end performances, scoring 9.725 or higher on three separate occasions with a season-high of 9.800. Mills, who qualified for vault at the USAG Nationals and was named Penn's Most Improved Gymnast in 2017, herself holds a 9.750 personal best on the bars.
Even Borden, who only competed twice last season due to injuries, still excelled both times, with scores of 9.575 and 9.550 on bars. Combine the six of them together, and it's a murderers' row the likes of which the program has never seen in one event.
"I'm so excited for bars and have been since the begining of the offseason," said Kyra Levi, the only non-rookie to compete in the event for the majority of last season. "Last year, they had some big performances, and this year we have even more freshmen, we have more depth, and can score even more."
As strong as the group's overall rookie year was, that one meet at Temple undoubtedly stands as the greatest sign of its potential.
Levi pitched in with a 9.900 mark, number three in school history, but the record setting effort was defined by freshmen. The rookies' scores: Cullen's 9.925, Kothe's 9.825, Mitsch's 9.800, Mills' 9.750, and Flavin's 9.550 — the former four of which still stand as career-highs in what was just about as close to perfection as possible.
"I'm only a sophomore, but that's gotta be my top memory here," Mitsch said. "That sincere feeling of pure joy when not only you hit your bars set, but everyone else hits their bars set ... it was the best feeling that I've had since I've been at Penn."
When all was said and done, five of the then-freshmen qualified for USAG Nationals in some capacity, including four on bars. And the future is bright for the group, as the sophomores will only continue to improve as they get older.
So Penn’s season may well come down to one question: just how high can these sophomores fly?