KSU gymnasts eye '3-peat'

By Allen Moff Record-Courier sports writer Published:

Call it a tremendously difficult challenge turned mission near impossible. That best describes the turn of events that has effectively placed a seemingly impassable block in the Kent State gymnastics team's pursuit of sporting world's most revered and rarely-achieved goal. The "Three-peat." The two-time defending Mid-American Conference champion Golden Flashes knew they would have to cope with the loss of several key performers to graduation, including MAC all-around champion Michelle Naessig, in 1998. And they also knew conference foes would be gunning to end their reign atop the MAC every time out. But the Flashes didn't know they'd have to face such a stiff set of challenges in their current bruised and battered state. "Injuries have really piled up on us," said coach Brice Biggin, entering his seventh year at the Flashes' helm. "This is the toughest time we've had with injuries since I've been here. They're not major, but they just keep popping up in succession, one after another. It's been tough to deal with." Among the walking wounded are juniors Kelly Dezman and Kristine Slam, the squad's only two returning all-arounders. Dezman, who captured the vault title at the MAC Championships last year, has missed nearly six weeks of practice due to a nagging back injury. And Slam, the 1996 MAC freshman of the year, just returned to action last month from a broken wrist. "Dezman has the talent to be one of the best in the MAC," said Biggin. "But she's still struggling with her back. We still expect her to compete in the all-around. "Slam has come a long way in a short period of time since her injury. She's pushed herself extremely hard to get back into shape and help this team, and that's great to see because we really need her right now." The Flashes do have a pair of key returnees that have managed to stay healthy thus far in seniors Danielle Roman and Sarah Wolford. Roman, a team captain along with fellow senior Kim Cramb, was a solid performer on bars, floor and beam a year ago while Wolford won the vault title at the NCAA Regionals to earn a trip to the NCAA Championships in '97. "Roman hasn't competed on vault the past three years, but she's wanted so bad to be an all-arounder," said Biggin. "She has a vault that will work for her this year. Now, she has a chance to be one of the top all-arounders in the conference. "Wolford has competed on vault, floor and bars, but never on beam, and it's tough to start on beam when you're a senior. But I think she can handle it." Biggin is admittedly relying heavy on his two prized seniors. "They know they're filling in big spots and they've stepped up to the challenge," said Biggin. "When we go into a meet needing a certain routine, those are the two we'll look to." The injury story continues with junior letterwinner Susanne Stadelman, who is still recovering from a broken hand suffered during warm-ups for the annual Blue-Gold Alumni Meet on Dec. 5. "She'll be out about two more weeks, but she's coming along well," said Biggin. "She'll definitely be back and we need her because she's one of our top performers on bars." Prized freshman Melissa Leibling suffered the most serious injury to date, a torn posterior cruciate ligament in her knee. "That's a big loss for us," said Biggin. "We were really high on her vault, and she was a potential all-arounder. She could still be back this year ... we're keeping our fingers crossed." Biggin is also expecting contributions from freshmen Kelly Lovejoy (bars, beam, possibly floor), Airelle Hunter (bars and vault) and Jill Mackey, a walk-on who has been a "diamond in the rough" according to her mentor. Seniors Cramb and Rene Keenan are also challenging for spots in the lineup. The rash of injuries leaves the Flashes slightly depleted heading into Sunday's opener against Rhode Island at the MAC Center. "We aren't going into our first meet with our strongest team, but the key is not to panic," said first-year assistant coach Joanne Bowers. "We have to keep focused on what's coming, and we coaches have to try to keep them believing." Biggin, despite the disparaging circumstances, still believes his Flashes can challenge heavily-favored Central Michigan and the rest of the field in '98 ... and he hasn't ruled out the Flashes' "Three-peat" possibilities, either. "With the injures and all the new faces, it would be easy to say this is a rebuilding year," said Biggin. "But I believe if you say that, you don't push yourself or your teammates as hard because you use that as a scapegoat. "This program has so much tradition that we expect to be strong every year regardless. We'll do what it takes to be competitive, and we'll expect to be successful. It'll just be a bigger challenge this year than it has been in the past."

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