Coming into the season, the goal was clear: Win the Big Ten championships.
On Saturday, the Penn State women's gymnastics team got its opportunity. Though that goal wasn't ultimately reached, the Nittany Lions had one of their best meets of the season and are fine with leaving Columbus, Ohio, with a 196.525 and second place.
No. 17 Penn State and No. 9 Michigan were neck-and-neck throughout the entire meet, eventually coming down to the final rotation. The Lions, trailing by 0.275, went to bars and the Wolverines had the unenviable task of finishing the meet on beam.
The Lions rose to the occasion and tied a season-high score on bars with a 49.350, and sophomore Natalie Ettl even won the Big Ten bars title. The problem, though, is the Wolverines were also at their best when it counted. The Wolverines counted four 9.900 beam scores en route to a 49.450, fifth best in program history, and won their fourth- straight Big Ten title with a 196.900.
"You got to take your hat off to Michigan," Lions coach Steve Shephard said. "They had to end on beam and face the pressure. They had to be perfect on beam, and they were virtually perfect on beam.
"We don't have anything to be ashamed of."
The biggest surprise of the meet for the Lions came on vault, which has been their best event this season.
The Lions scored 49.100 or higher in eight of their last nine meets, and after two very strong performances on beam and floor at the championships, it looked as if the Lions were poised to take command of the meet.
However, the Lions scored a 48.850 and fell behind the Wolverines' pace. Out of the six routines, only senior Rosie Smith was able to stick her vault landing, something that hasn't been a problem for the Lions all season.
"We didn't stick vaults like we needed to," Shephard said. "There's a couple of tenths right there. It's a subjective sport, and you can't open the door by not sticking and leave it in the judges' hands, and that's what they did."
Following a bye to start the meet, the Lions drew beam first, their worst event this season, having come off a season-low 47.700 on March 20, their last regular-season meet. The Lions hit all six routines, scoring a 49.025 thanks to a pair of 9.900s from Brandi Personett and Sharaya Musser, who were also named Big Ten Gymnast and Freshman of the Year, respectively.
The Lions took that momentum into floor, where they tied a season high with a 49.300. Personett, who also won the Big Ten all-around title, finished first on floor with a 9.950 and even earned a perfect 10 from one of the four judges.
"Every kid on the team had their season best I felt," Shephard said of the Lions' floor performance, "and it was reflected in the scores."
The biggest positive to come out of the meet for the Lions is that they were finally able to drop the 194.150 road score from Denver that has haunted their regional qualifying score (RQS) this season. The Lions replace that with the 196.525 and will assuredly move up in the final RQS rankings before teams are seeded for regionals today.
"Definitely our goal was to win the Big Ten championships, and although we didn't get the championship," Personett said, "we were able to get a really high road score ... which is gonna help us for regional seeding.
"We were very proud of our performance. We hit 24 of 24 routines and we had some of the best performances that I've ever seen come out of these girls."