In sophomore Kirsten Peterman’s mind, the Maryland gymnastics team’s season changed Jan. 19.
That’s when the Terps beat Penn State for just the third time in their history. That changed the mindset of the team, Peterman said, which had previously been ranked below the Nittany Lions but finished the season six spots above them.
The win showed the potential of the young squad, which went on to attain the fourth-highest individual meet score in program history and the first NCAA tournament appearance in three years.
“We haven’t had this many freshmen ever, but they came in and brought a certain level of confidence and aggressiveness,” coach Brett Nelligan said. “We thought we could use them right away, and it seemed like it worked.”
Maryland scored 195.850 at the Raleigh Regional, finishing in fourth place despite being the lowest-ranked of the six teams at the meet.
The freshmen, led by all-around Audrey Barber, posted 9.9s throughout the season. Barber had a season-best 39.475 on Feb. 11 and March 9, becoming just the fifth Maryland gymnast ever to score that high.
Her performance at the Maryland Quad Meet helped the team to a 196.575 overall mark, the fourth-highest score in Maryland history.
Freshmen Emilie LeBlanc and Karrie Thomas also both had a 9.9 in their rookie campaigns.
“This year we definitely had more underclassmen competing, and you don’t really see that happen too often,” Peterman said. “We now have underclassmen with experience going into the future seasons, and they will teach the new freshmen.”
The influx of freshmen helped the team improve greatly from last season, when it had just six event scores of at least 49. This year’s Terps surpassed that mark 22 times. And after never breaking 196 in 2017, the Terps did so twice this season.
The NCAA tournament is reserved for the nation’s top 36 teams, and after ranking No. 39 in 2016 and No. 37 in 2017, the Terps finished the regular season at No. 31 this year.
“Our consistency was better than last year, but that’s the name of the game,” Nelligan said. “Doing that high-level gymnastics right from the beginning and all year — that’s the consistency we’re looking for. That’s something that will come next year.”
The underclassmen-led turnaround earned Nelligan the Big Ten Coach of the Year award.
After exceeding expectations with a team that didn’t use any seniors in the final three meets — and hardly any before that — Nelligan believes the program is headed for new heights in the future.
“I’m here to help guide them to achieve as much as they possibly can,” Nelligan said. “We wanted to try to establish ourselves as an up-and-coming team, and we did.”