Flashback to the start of the 2002-2003 season. The date was Jan. 23, 2003, to be exact, and the women’s gymnastics team, coming off seven straight sub-.500 seasons, headed to the University of Maryland without much attention or fan fare. Temple was fresh off an upset win over rival Rutgers, but as Owls’ coach Ken Anderson described the scene, the Terrapins gave his squad a cold reception.
“Walking into the gym, the attitude coming from that team was as if we weren’t even there,” Anderson said at practice earlier this week. “After two events, we were beating them. They did get us in the end, but you should have seen how their attitude changed when that halftime score came out and we were ahead.”
Anderson imitated the Maryland gymnasts’ expressions, his mouth dropping open in mock astonishment.
“What? Temple?'” he said, ending his parody with a chuckle.
But over the course of the next month, Temple proceeded to place first in three of its next four meets, spawning the wave of momentum that would carry the Owls to the Final Four of the USA Gymnastics National Championships in late April of 2003.
Fast forward to this season and Temple will no longer be able to steal victories by catching opponents unaware of their strength. The Owls follow much the same path as last year’s early schedule; 10 days removed from a tough meet against Rutgers in which the Scarlet Knights were this time the victors, Temple travels back to the Old Line State for a Jan. 31 meeting with Maryland, James Madison and Towson.
“Maryland, I think, will be a little more aware than they were last year,” Anderson said, but added the other two schools should not be overlooked. “Towson, it’s possible, could also be a little bit of a surprise. When you’re in a situation with four teams competing with each other, we could end up anywhere from first to last.”
Paige Ozaroski, one of two seniors on the team, said the Rutgers’ loss setback did little to wane the Owls’ confidence heading into this weekend’s meet.
“Everyone feels good,” she said. “I mean, we were at Rutgers; everyone knows that when you’re the away team at a school and they’re your rivals, sometimes scores get thrown out there that they normally wouldn’t get. That’s understandable. But we beat them [Maryland] last year and we know we can beat them when we play again this year.”
The Owls know that gaining experience and momentum, and doing it quickly, is key for a team dominated by underclassmen. Thirteen of the 20 gymnasts on the squad are freshmen or sophomores. Since young gymnasts, in general, are brought up mostly competing for individual awards in private clubs, Anderson has found the transition to team-oriented competition to be one of the hardest adjustments for first and second-year college gymnasts.
Senior co-captain Jennifer Beaver, however, was skeptical of the belief that underclassmen, especially Temple’s, possess a shortage of experience.
“These girls have all been doing gymnastics since they were about 5-years-old, so they’re experienced in competition, even if they haven’t experienced college competition yet,” said Beaver, who in 2003 joined teammates Ozaroski and junior co-captain Erin Davis as USAG All-Americans. “College is all about working as a team, rather than as an individual, and some – Noelle Moore, Jillian Kornett, and Sarah Liebowitz – have already stepped in as freshman and filled some roles for us.”
The Owls hope the role filling begets a few high scores this weekend, as they hope to finish what they started 369 days ago and, this time, finish the meet ahead of Maryland. Aaron Murphy, in his second year as assistant coach, asserted that this year’s success must remain the team’s singular focus, although last season’s showing was memorable.
“Our focus, obviously, is to do a little better than last year, but we can’t tell them ‘OK, we need this and this score,'” Murphy said. “We just need to hit our routines; the scores that are there are there.”
After the Maryland meet, Temple will return to McGonigle Hall for a home meet against cross-city rival Penn Feb. 5. Temple will then end the month of February with four away meets at Penn, Towson, New Hampshire and Rutgers, respectively.
Benjamin Watanabe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.