Temple gymnasts ‘stayed the course’ through slow start

The Owls qualified for NCAA Regionals for the first time since 1992.

Sophomore all-around Grace Busch (center) high-fives teammates and coaches during the Owls’ meet against the University of North Carolina at McGonigle Hall on Feb. 21. | NICK DAVIS / THE TEMPLE NEWS

Temple University gymnastics lost their first seven games of the 2021 season and didn’t win their first meet until almost two full months into the season.

“We started training in the middle of October, had a couple little bumps in the road,” said head coach Josh Nilson. “We really only trained for maybe six to eight weeks before we competed, which is insane. There are people in our conference that train starting in July.”

Despite their slow start, the Owls (4-13-1, 3-10-1 East Atlantic Gymnastics League) will compete at the NCAA Regional Championships for the first time since 1992 on April 1 against the University of Arizona (0-6-0, 0-5-0 Pac-12 Conference) after winning the East Atlantic Gymnastics League championship on March 20.

The Owls entered the East Atlantic championship with a record of 3-13-1, putting them in fourth place in the conference, but they ended the season by winning three out of their last four meets, giving them momentum heading into the event.

“We stayed the course,” Nilson said. “It ended up great. I mean, five season highs in a row is a pretty cool story so, but I don’t know if there’s a magic bullet.”

The key for the Owls’ higher competition scores wasn’t practice adjustments or changes to their event routines. They just needed time, said junior Ariana Castrence. 

“It usually takes a while for us to settle in and until the new team chemistry and like get used to the dynamics of the team changes every year,” Castrence added. “I think we started to just become comfortable and not so tense.” 

Because of their poor start to the season, Temple knew they had to win the conference championship to make NCAA Regionals. 

“I don’t think any of us woke up that day feeling like we could come home not winning,” said junior Julianna Roland. “It was all like, ‘There’s no way we’re not getting back on the bus without the trophy.’”

Temple moved from the Eastern College Athletic Conference to the East Atlantic at the beginning of the 2021 season. The East Atlantic is a tougher conference and has produced 137 NCAA team bids in 38 years.

“I still think, you know, some teams will underestimate us,” Castrence said.

Roland, senior Faith Leary and a couple of the other girls pray before each meet, which has created a welcoming environment, Roland said.

“That’s such a big aspect of it like, you want to be on a team that’s fun and lets you have the college career that you wanted,” she added.

During the team’s final rotation in the championship, they needed to score a 48.500 on vault to tie North Carolina State University. The Owls then scored a 48.975 to win the East Atlantic Championship.

“Most of us cried,” Leary said. “But it was just excitement we’ve never felt as a team before.”

As one of the older members of the team, Leary focused on getting everyone to enjoy competing, even when the team was struggling, because she knew they could improve quickly, she said. 

“Just like fun and loving and supportive is something that I won’t let them take for granted,” Leary added. “Like before the meets like, I’m just like, ‘Just have fun and soak in every moment because like, we won’t get this time back like, ever.”’

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