New Year, New Team: How Arizona State Resurrected Its Gymnastics Program

At the midpoint of the 2018 season, Arizona State is ranked No. 17 in the country. The Gym Devils have the fifth-highest average score among Pac-12 teams — a massive jump from where they found themselves a year ago. At the midway point of the 2017 season, Arizona State was ranked No. 45 in the country, nine spots away from the final team that qualified to regionals.

The 2018 season has been packed with records for the Gym Devils. When Arizona State hit the 49.0 mark on all four events on January 14 on the road against West Virginia, it was the first time since regionals in 2007. The team total of 196.475 against the Mountaineers was the squad’s best score since March 2, 2007. They eclipsed that two weeks later when the they posted a 196.800 in their home opener against Cal. 

The Gym Devils were ranked No. 12 in the national rankings the following week.

There’s history in Tempe, too.

The Gym Devils made 19 appearances at the NCAA championships between 1982 and 2006 — including four finishes as the NCAA runner-up. They haven’t been back to the NCAA championships since that 2006 season.

Jay Santos is the third head coach to take over the program since 2014. Long-time head coach John Spini retired in 2014. Rene Lyst coached Arizona State for the 2015 and most of the 2016 seasons before being placed on administrative leave. She was eventually fired. 

When the husband-and-wife coaching duo — Jessica Santos is the team’s associate head coach — stepped in before the 2017 season, they knew their first season would be a rebuilding year.

“Right from the start, we were really trying to work on the culture and the expectations for everything," Jay Santos said in a phone interview. "How you get ready for practice, your treatment, everything. The expectations for practice. Right from the start that was what we saw that needed to change: how they prepared and how they did all of that. That’s probably the one biggest thing.”

The 2017 squad was young. There was one senior, one junior, and a combined 13 freshmen and sophomores. Seven gymnasts were new to college gymnastics and needed to adjust to the rigors of competing on a weekly basis and the increased focus on execution.

Jay Santos recalls the opening meet of the season when the Gym Devils fell to Iowa State 193.850 to 191.800; with such a young team, there was confusion on whether that 191.800 was good or bad. 

“We were so young and with the freshmen not quite knowing, [we had to tell them], ‘No that’s not great, we don’t want to start there,’” he said. “The difference between where we started last year and where we started this year really shows all the hard work these kids put in a year, year and a half.”

The 2018 season paints a new picture. The Gym Devils opened with a 194.675 and finished second in a quad meet at home. And rather than focusing on senior leadership, the Gym Devils employ a leadership group consisting of Nichelle Christopherson as the lone senior but also a junior and two sophomores. The Gym Devils have a seven-member junior class with plenty of experience on the competition floor.

“A lot of them, their freshman year they got a lot of experience,” Jessica Santos said. “It might not have been a positive experience but they did compete a lot. I think that’s one of the other differences this year is we don’t feel like we’re a super young team.”

That experience has made competition for spots in the lineup fiercer than before. It’s a challenge for the coaches as well as the athletes.

“The challenge is that we are deeper," Jessica Santos said. "They have to compete for their spots more than they’ve ever had to. I think that with those sophomores and juniors we talked about it in the offseason about having the depth. I think they really saw it in preseason and earlier in the season where we have number seven and number eight on a couple of events who can score just as well as anyone in the lineup. That’s probably more of a challenge than the youth and experience.”

The consistency within that group of seven or eight athletes battling for six spots in the lineup has been significant for the Gym Devils.

“We kept telling them at some point, something’s going to happen and we need that depth to make sure we don’t take a big hit from one week to the next,” Jay Santos said.

Something did happen.

Christopherson went down two meets ago with an injury. Her status is “week-to-week” and the Gym Devils are hopeful that she’ll be back in the lineup during postseason. Other gymnasts have stepped up in her absence, including Graycee Rushton on vault and Kaitlyn Szafranski on bars.

The senior spent her first two college seasons at Michigan, where she competed at regionals in 2016. The Wolverines also competed at both regionals and the the NCAA championships in 2015. As the lone senior on the squad, Christopherson is the only Gym Devil with postseason experience, something that she says has proved invaluable. 

“Being able to have that and know what it feels like and portray that to the team: ‘If you think it’s fun now, wait 'til postseason, it gets even more competitive, it gets even more fun,’” Christopherson said. “So [I’m] able to guide the team in a way that shows them what that’s like to do that and what it’s going to take to get there.”

The 2017 season was Christopherson's first in Tempe. She competed regularly in the all-around but was especially consistent on uneven bars, where she posted a 9.700 or better nine times. The senior has seen a huge difference in the team coming into the 2018 season versus the 2017 season.

“Last year we were definitely building the team,” Christopherson said. “This year I definitely feel like we’re at that stage where we have enough potential and everyone’s worked so incredibly hard that going into meets is so much more fun than it was last year.

“I think the difference is this year we know the expectations of the coaches. We sat down a lot and did a lot of meetings about commitment and what that really means. Last year I feel like it was a lot of talk but people didn’t realize what commitment meant. It’s not just inside of the gym, but outside, too. It’s every single thing that’s going to impact whether or not we’re successful.”

There was another shift between 2017 and 2018, Christopherson said, where the Gym Devils were able to focus on the little details.

“Last year we weren’t able to reach this point where we were able to go into a meet and focus on the details,” she said. “We were more worried about hitting. So this year, we’ve finally reached that point where we can focus on the small details.” 

Those small details — straight arms, hitting handstands, pointing toes, and sticking landings — add up. In a sport measured by tenths and hundredths, the small details are the difference between being good and being great.

“Our coaches always tell us, ‘Don’t tenth yourself to death.’ That’s so important because you don’t realize until you get to the mid-196 range just how much those small details matter, and how if one person or two people were to hit one more handstand [how] that would dramatically [impact] our score,” Christopherson said. “We’re always saying, ‘Be brilliant at the basics,’ and I think that’s what we’re pushing for right now, and that’s going to help us tremendously to keep pushing our score.”

Cairo Leonard-Baker burst onto the collegiate scene early in the season with her stellar sets on both uneven bars and floor exercise. The freshman has earned Pac-12 Newcomer of the Week honors four times so far and is currently ranked No. 10 on uneven bars after scoring a 9.875 or better in each of the last six meets. She has posted a season-high 9.950 twice this season.

Despite the Pac-12 accolades and the attention her performances have garnered, Leonard-Baker is focused on her team — not her individual accomplishments.

“I walk into every meet thinking, ‘This is for my team, this is for our school.’ I also am always thinking about beating myself,” Leonard-Baker said. “I haven’t gotten a 10 yet, so I’m not perfect; I have things to work on. Jay always tells us about the little things and stuff like that, so I’m thinking about the pointed feet, the straight arms, and things like that every meet, every skill.”

Her drive to compete, consistency and focus on the details has not gone unnoticed by the coaching staff.

“Cairo’s been phenomenal for us coming out of the gate and just being really consistent," Jessica Santos said. "She’s been great, she’s a huge competitor and it’s something that this team definitely needs a lot more of. She’s been kind of a leader in that way. She’s still a freshman, she still has some things to figure out but from a competition standpoint for her that’s the easy stuff. The first two meets was where you saw her scoring potential and this drive of, ‘Oh wow, I can do really big things,’ so every day she comes into practice really trying to focus on the details.”

The freshman scored a season-high 39.575 in the all-around on January 28 against Cal where she hit a 9.850 or better on all four events. She hasn’t scored below a 9.875 on bars or floor since the first meet of the season and is currently ranked No. 17 in the all-around. 

For now her focus is on the team, where the goals range from hitting a 195.500 on the competition floor to holding a 3.65 GPA in the classroom. As the season has progressed, new goals have entered the conversation: hitting the 197 mark is the newest addition to the list. Jessica and Jay Santos left the team’s goals up to their athletes, which presented its own challenges.

“We had some girls on our team [where] our goals last year that we didn’t make: we didn’t make regionals, which was a goal of ours, we didn’t win a lot of meets. So for them, since we didn’t do that last year that’s where they wanted to go,” Jessica Santos said. “They wanted to start there. Then we had some other girls on our team who said, ‘Hey, we have a lot of talent on this team — we can do a lot more than that.’ So we had to talk through it and find something in the middle that everyone could agree with where we should be as a team.”

There was some hesitation on just how high the team could — or should — shoot for in 2018. 

“I felt like everyone was really hesitant to say top-25, regionals, or make it to nationals,” Leonard-Baker said. “But at the end of the day we did say it. So to come out here and see that as a possibility is great, because now we have new goals. After the first week where we had that 195.500 goal and we didn’t hit it, it just felt like so much more motivation because although we had a really good meet; we knew that we were so much better than that. Now through the rest of the season we’ve just had that drive and that fire because we know what we’re capable of and we don’t want that 194 again."

Christopherson agreed.

“It’s honestly not surprising,” she said of Arizona State’s top-20 ranking. “This is one of the goals that we had coming into the season and we’ve succeeded so far. We have that drive, we have that preparation, and we have that trust. I think we all expected to be within the top 20 and so it doesn’t come as a surprise. We’re going to keep pushing to get even further up there.”

Arizona State is ranked No. 13 on the their best event — uneven bars, with a 49.032 average. The Gym Devils rank inside the top 25 on vault, balance beam, and floor exercise. 

“We were pretty confident we were going to have a better team than we had last year," Jay Santos said. "Whether it was a little better or whether it was a lot better was really up to them and the work they were willing to put in. We told them that we thought they had the ability to really make a jump if they were able to put it all together. We certainly accomplished at least some of that — I think we can do a little bit more. We still have a little more potential to get better than what we’ve done so far.”

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