Minnesota junior Dusti Russell made her season debut as the No. 11 Gophers women’s gymnastics squad won the four-team Best of Minnesota meet Saturday at the Sports Pavilion.
Russell competed on the uneven bars and won the balance beam. Her return adds depth to a Gophers squad that is off to its best start ever.
“Not only is it great to have her back as a competitor that helps our team score,” head coach Meg Stephenson said, “it’s great for the chemistry of the team to have her competing again.”
The Gophers began the season 9-0 despite Russell’s absence and improved to 12-0 Saturday, defeating Gustavus, Hamline and Winona State in front of their largest home crowd of the season.
Russell, an all-around qualifier for the 2012 NCAA championships, missed the Gophers’ first five meets this season with a foot injury.
She did not compete in the vault or floor exercise Saturday, but Stephenson said she hopes she will compete in all four events soon.
“We’ll just kind of see how it goes and play it by ear,” Stephenson said.
With Russell out, the Gophers have received contributions in the all-around competition from freshman Lindsay Mable and sophomore Jenny Covers. Covers finished first out of six in the all-around Saturday, placing in the top six in all four events.
Mable scored personal bests in the vault and floor exercise Saturday. She finished second in the all-around competition despite falling off the uneven bars.
The uneven bars was the Gophers’ lowest-scoring event for the fourth time this season.
“It’s more of a confidence thing now than anything else,” Stephenson said.
The Gophers are one of three undefeated teams in the NCAA. They will compete against Iowa and Iowa State next weekend before traveling to top-ranked Florida on Mar. 1.
The Gophers men’s team scored its highest point total of the season Saturday night, but it didn’t matter as it lost to a hot Oklahoma squad.
No. 6 Minnesota recorded season-high scores in five of the six events, but the No. 2 Sooners defeated the Gophers 443.35-435.45 in Norman, Okla.
Minnesota outscored the Sooners on vault, but Oklahoma pulled away in every other event, especially on pommel horse and still rings.
Steve Jaciuk led the Gophers with career-highs in three events. The sophomore won the high bar, finished second on parallel bars and took third on rings.
Jaciuk said it was difficult for the team’s voices to be heard through the first half of the meet.
He said when he began his night on rings, Minnesota’s fourth rotation, he wanted to give the team “a pick-me-up” to get it back in the meet. It worked, although Minnesota couldn’t overcome its deficit.
Gophers head coach Mike Burns said Jaciuk was the team’s most valuable performer of the night.
Sophomore Sean Bauer had a season-high on floor exercise to finish third, and junior Zack Chase won the vault.
Minnesota has struggled on pommel horse this season, but Burns said all six competitors on pommel horse stayed on the apparatus Saturday.
As a result, Minnesota scored 70.95 points on the event, more than 1.5 points higher than its previous best at the Windy City Invitational.
“It was the highlight of the meet right there,” Burns said. “We’re just really pleased the whole team was able to go through it and set the pace pretty much for the rest of the night.”
Burns said he was pleased with the high score, and the team has its sights on breaking 440 points by the season’s end.
Last week against Iowa was a struggle, as untimely illnesses coupled with three gymnasts in Las Vegas for the Winter Cup competition led to the Gophers’ lowest team score of the season.
On Saturday, things were much different.
“This week we’re getting off of injuries; we’re getting healthy from sickness,” Jaciuk said. “It was just good to have all the guys back together again.”
Jaciuk said the past few weeks have shown the team can overcome adversity.
Oklahoma also set a season-high total Saturday in its first home meet of the year. The Sooners have not lost at home since 2007.
Minnesota will be on the road for the third consecutive week next Sunday at Illinois-Chicago. It will be the Gophers’ last meet before teams begin to use five gymnasts on each event instead of six.