While sifting through the record books in his office earlier this season, women’s gymnastics coach Aaron Murphy found something he found to be rather remarkable.
Spanning from Feb. 1 at the Ken Anderson Invite through Feb. 22 at a meet against Rutgers, the Owls consecutively beat 11 teams head-to-head – an achievement the program had not accomplished in 25 years.
“I was glad I was by myself in the office,” Murphy said. “Just kind of taking the time to myself, and being excited for helping the girls accomplish that.”
Throughout the season, the Owls steadily improved – starting this season with a team score of 186.775 and peaking with a tally of 192.325 at Ursinus College.
“Jumping up five points is huge in gymnastics,” Murphy said. “Because if you’re jumping five tenths, you’re doing a good job.”
One example of the team’s advancement is freshman Briana Odom. Starting off the season competing on three out of the four individual events, Odom worked her way into the all-around by the following week, and competed in that role throughout the year.
She saved her best performances for last, scoring a career-high 38.475 at the Eastern Collegiate Athletic Conference Championships, and then bettering that mark at the USA Gymnastics Women’s Collegiate National Championships with a 38.500, good enough for first team USAG All-American in the category.
Murphy said Odom’s success as a freshman has been an “eye-opener”. Odom said that she didn’t have very high expectations coming into this season.
“Coming into college, I was really trying to focus on one event to just get me into competition,” Odom said. “I really just wanted to compete in a couple meets this season. To say that at the end of my freshman season I competed in every single meet we were in, and competed in the all-around… I really surprised myself a lot.”
Odom’s success highlights the potential of the youth in the program – a group that will need to improve next season due to seven seniors departing, Murphy said.
One of those seniors is captain Heather Zaniewski, who doubted if she would be able to compete in her final season due to a right shoulder injury back in August.
Her leadership proved to be key throughout the season, especially when injuries knocked several regular competitors out of the lineup.
“I think people mostly look to me to comfort them,” Zaniewski said. “Just to tell them that it’s OK, stuff like this happens… we all have each other’s backs, we have girls who can go up there and still get a great routine even after someone gets hurt.”
Sophomore Reagan Oliveri started off this season in the all-around, scoring a 38.175 at the George Washington Invite. She was in and out of that category all season, but Murphy said he has been impressed with her overall mental toughness that stems from the way she practices.
Oliveri said that she practices in a manner that creates as close to an atmosphere to actual competition as possible. She said her main mental obstacle is on the balance beam, even though she finished second in that event at the USAG individual finals, resulting in first team USAG All-American honors on the apparatus.
“Me and [assistant coach Deirdre Mattocks] had a conversation about beam and how I get really nervous in a competition on beam,” Oliveri said. “I was never able to bring those nerves and that feeling to practice… During these last few weeks her and I collaborated and figured out ways to make me as nervous as possible in the gym so I could work out like I was in a meet.”
Looking ahead to next season, Murphy has focused on two areas to improve in particular: making the vaults more difficult and cleaning up the current routines.
Murphy said the key to improving vault scores is adding a twist to the shapes his gymnasts take in the air, whether it be a “tuck,” “pike” or “layout.” This results in a higher start value, increasing the potential for better scores. Murphy added that cleaning up is about the little mistakes in routines: legs being bent, toes not being pointed and legs splitting are a few examples.
Murphy said the conference will continue to be competitive, but he’s got his eyes on one school in particular.
“I heard that William & Mary recruited pretty well,” Murphy said. “I think they’re going to be a powerhouse next year, but definitely look out for Temple.”
Steve Bohnel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @SteveSportsGuy1.