As the eight members of the East Atlantic Gymnastics League get together for the eighth annual EAGL Championship Meet Saturday night at the Whittemore Center, they are celebrating a milestone of sorts. Saturday's meet completes the first rotation of host sites for the eight EAGL teams.
When the EAGL was organized back in 1995, the eight EAGL coaches drew names out of the hat to determine the order in which each school would host. When Coach Gail Goodspeed pulled out her rotation order and it was announced that UNH would be the host in 2003, more than one coach was heard to remark, "who knows where we'll be in 2003?"
It seemed so far away.
Amazingly enough, the eight coaches who got together in 1995 to form the EAGL are still coaching at the same eight schools tonight.
While Coach Goodspeed is in her 24th year at UNH, Linda Burdette is completing her 29th season at West Virginia. Bob Nelligan is completing his 25th season as the coach at Maryland while North Carolina's Derek Galvin is finishing his 22nd season with the Tar Heels. At North Carolina State, Mark Stevenson is coaching the Wolfpack for the 23rd year while Towson's Dick Filbert has been the Tigers' coach for 21 seasons. At Pittsburgh, Debbie Yohman is completing her 19th season with the Panthers while Chrystal Chollet-Norton is finishing her 17th season coaching at Rutgers.
Since its humble beginnings in 1995, the EAGL has developed into a very competitive gymnastics league that has helped each of its programs develop. While the EAGL may not be the best gymnastics league in the nation, it is probably the most balanced. This is truly a meet that any team can win.
"Picking the winner of this meet is pure guesswork," said one EAGL coach. "I can take each team and give you a reason why it can win this meet and I can also tell you why they can finish last. It's just that close."
Last season, North Carolina came virtually out of nowhere to win the EAGL championship. The Tar Heels, who set a meet record with their 196.425 team score, had never finished higher than fourth at any previous meet. In fact, the Tar Heels even shocked their coach. Galvin knew his team did well but he didn't know they had won the meet until he signed his scoresheet.
North Carolina has parlayed last year's success and is enjoying the best season in school history. The Tar Heels have been ranked in the top 25 for most of the season and won 20 of their first 22 decisions.
Junior Anna Wilson has been the Tar Heels' steadiest performer for most of the year. Last March, her 39.20 all-around score and 9.975 on floor exercise helped the Tar Heels win the EAGL Meet. Wilson, who had a 10.0 on floor earlier this year, is one of the EAGL's top performers on beam and floor.
With the addition of freshmen Courtney Bumpers and Mikel Hester, the Tar Heels have depth as well. A two-time pick as EAGL Gymnast of the Week, Bumpers won the all-around competition in the first four meets of her career. Hester has also come on strong in recent weeks and rates as one of the EAGL's top vaulters. Sophomore Olivia Trusty is also a strong contributor in vault and floor.
In seven seasons of EAGL Championships, West Virginia has won more titles than anyone with three. Last year's runners-up, the Mountaineers come to Durham with one of the most experienced teams in the EAGL.
The Mountaineers are led by seniors Dinorh Boyd, Amanda Halovanic and TeShawne Jackson. The co-winner of the EAGL Gymnast of the Year award in 2001, Boyd is a very talented beam worker who has battled injuries all season. Halovanic, the 2002 EAGL co-champion on beam, has had a solid senior season and will challenge for the EAGL title on bars. Halovanic also finished third in the all-around last year.
Jackson has made the EAGL Championship her own personal showcase the last two years. She was the EAGL all-around champion in 2001 and 2002. In 2001, she won all-around with a 39.375 score and finished first in vault with a perfect 10.0 score. Last year, she repeated as the EAGL champion in the all-around, setting an EAGL record with a 39.575 score.
Another veteran, junior Jessica Bartgis, may be the most improved gymnast in the EAGL. After hardly competing as a freshman and sophomore, she became one of the team's most reliable all-arounds.
Host New Hampshire also brings an experienced team to the EAGL Championship. The Wildcats, who are seeking their first EAGL title, have three of the top all-arounds in the EAGL, senior Michelle Harley, junior Jen Dickson and freshman Amanda Hall. The EAGL Rookie of the Year as a freshman, Harley is one the top beam workers in the EAGL.
Honored as the EAGL Rookie of the Year two years ago, Dickson has been the most consistent all-around performer in the EAGL. She leads the league with a 39.270 Regional Qualifying Score and has averaged more than 39.00 this season. Until last month, she owned the school record in the all-around with a 39.425 score.
A top candidate for the EAGL Rookie of the Year award this season, Hall broke the school record in the all-around earlier this month when she earned a 39.45 score. She has also done very well in vault and looms as a strong contender for the EAGL championship in vault. Hall was named as the EAGL Gymnast of the Week twice this season.
The Wildcats have competed with as many as four all-arounds this year. Sophomore Vanessa James has had a solid season and is one of UNH's top scorers on the floor exercise.
Ordinarily, one would think that the Wildcats have the home gym advantage going for them. However, being the home team has not been a factor in previous EAGL Meets. In fact, the host team has won the EAGL only once. In 1996, West Virginia won the first EAGL Meet in the WVU Coliseum. The EAGL champions in 1999 and 2000, North Carolina State may have the most balanced team in the EAGL this year. Coach Mark Stevenson has an impressive lineup of specialists that has kept the Wolfpack in the national rankings for most of the year.
Junior Leah Sabo, a transfer from the University of Utah, has been the Wolfpack's only all-around performer. She is ranked seventh in the EAGL as an all-around and had a career high 39.40 score two weeks ago. Sabo is also of NC State's top performers on bars.
Junior Molly Pennington has been the Wolfpack's top vaulter for most of the year while the Wolfpack's bars team, led by senior Marlyn Madey, sophomore Kelley Kello and Sabo has been outstanding. Freshman Kylah Bachman and sophomore Cori Goldstein have done well on beam while Goldstein is the Wolfpack's top performer on floor.
Maryland may have the youngest team in the EAGL this season.
Freshmen Rachel Martinez and Kristi Skowronski have been the Terrapins' top all-around performers this season. A two-time pick as EAGL Gymnast of the Week, Martinez tied the school record with a 39.625 all-around score a few weeks ago.
Martinez has also been Maryland's top gymnast in vault and floor exercise while junior Mandy Pascual is the Terps' top performer on bars. On the balance beam, junior Sarah Hoenig gives Maryland one of the top performers in the EAGL. Freshman Alexandra Gatch has also been a strong addition to the lineup.
Seniors Jenn Baierlein and Kristen Presutti make Towson an instant contender for the EAGL Championship. The two veterans are two of the top gymnasts in the EAGL. Each has been named first team All-EAGL as an all-around two years in a row and Presutti was the EAGL Gymnast of the Year in 2002.
The leading scorer in Towson gymnastics history, Baierlein is the Cal Ripken of gymnastics. Competing just minutes from Oriole Park at Camden Yards, she has competed in all 51 meets of her college and has competed as an all-around in every meet. Baierlein is one of the top performers on bars and floor in the EAGL.
A seven-time selection as EAGL Gymnast of the Week, Presutti is the top-ranked vaulter in the EAGL with a 9.92 Regional Qualifying Score. She also ranks ninth in the nation in vaulting. Presutti is also ranked number one in the EAGL on the floor exercise with a 9.915 R.Q.S.
However, if the Tigers are going to win their first EAGL title, Baierlein and Presutti will need some help. Sophomore Juliya Kovaliova has been an outstanding performer on bars this season while freshman Jen Beekman has done well as an all-around. Sophomore Nicole Groccia, a transfer from Massachusetts, has been a pleasant surprise, competing as an all-around.
Like Towson, Pittsburgh is seeking its first EAGL championship. The Panthers, who should qualify for NCAA regionals, have enjoyed one of their best seasons ever. Senior Nathalie Sulpher has been Pittsburgh's top all-around this year while junior Alyse Zeffiro has been a tremendous three-event gymnast. Zeffiro is one of the top beam workers in the EAGL and she set the school record on floor exercise two weeks ago.
Depth is one of the strengths of the Panthers. Juniors Heather Launse and Diandra O'Connor have been solid vaulters for Pittsburgh while Sulpher has been very consistent on bars. Zeffiro will be a top contender for the EAGL beam title this evening while Launse and freshman Roslyn Singleton have contributed on floor.
Led by sophomore Sveta Shterenberg, Rutgers will be looking for its best-ever showing at an EAGL meet. Shterenberg has been the Scarlet Knights' top all-around performer and had a 39.10 score two weeks ago. She has shown steady improvement all season.
Senior Kristen Marino has been the Scarlet Knights' top gymnast on bars while Lisa Abrams has been very solid on balance beam. Junior Kaitlin Wight and freshman Erin Lynch have also been strong performers on the floor exercise for the Scarlet Knights.
While the EAGL Championship is the primary focus of tonight's meet, all eight teams will vie for spots in the NCAA regionals in two weeks. As many as six the eight EAGL teams could advance to regionals in two weeks. New Hampshire is ranked third in the Northeast region and a virtual cinch to make regionals. Pittsburgh is ranked fourth and Rutgers is fifth. Both teams may qualify.
The other five EAGL teams compete in the very tight Southeast regional. North Carolina is currently ranked third, just ahead of North Carolina State. Maryland stands fifth in the region, just ahead of Towson and West Virginia. Although nothing is certain, the top five or six teams in each region usually qualify.