NCAA is officially in full swing this weekend, and one of the best parts of any new NCAA season for me is tracking how our former elite faves are able to make the transition.
This year, I’m looking at each program’s freshman elite classes and ranking them based on the caliber of elite talent as well as how these classes have the potential to help their teams. In addition to picking my top ten, I’m also including a list of all of the other programs with former elite freshmen on the roster this season so you can learn a bit about their backgrounds and see how they can help their teams throughout their careers.
Given that Utah lost several key players last year, especially with MyKayla Skinner‘s decision to take what would have been her senior year off with the goal of making the 2020 Olympic team, it was crucial that they pick up some big talents going into this season. Thankfully, Utah did exactly that, with former U.S. national team members Maile O’Keefe and Abby Paulson coming in as two top former elite recruits who have the potential to keep Utah a top-five program, and that’s why Utah gets my top ranking for this list.
Maile, a two-time junior national champion tapped to be a huge deal for the U.S. elite program, unfortunately didn’t get very far into her senior career before growth spurts and injuries forced her to retire after just one senior assignment. A strong vaulter and brilliant beam kid, O’Keefe will bring her biggest talents to the table here, and hopefully she’ll also reach a high level on bars and floor to become a 39.5+ all-arounder for the program.
Abby was more quietly successful as an elite gymnast, never really on anyone’s radar as a junior, though she stepped out of her shell for an impressive senior season in 2017, winning all-around bronze and floor gold at Jesolo and competing in her fifth U.S. Championships before dropping back to level 10. Paulson is especially talented on beam and floor, and back in 2017, she reminded me a lot of a young Aly Raisman, a kid who worked hard and competed solid, dependable routines. Though her elite path didn’t exactly follow Raisman’s, her similar skill set and team player attitude should help her become a standout for Utah.
The former elite with the most clout at LSU this year is Alyona Shchennikova, a two-time U.S. senior national team member who spent six years competing at the elite level before retiring this summer after tearing her Achilles. It was kind of surprising to see Alyona choose to come to college early instead of sticking around another year with the hope of making it to the Olympic Trials, but LSU is lucky to snag her a year after losing several former top competitors.
Alyona is known for having a super tricky bars set with inbars and tons of connections. She regularly finished on podiums for this event, but as she got older and a bit more well-rounded, we saw her begin to also add value elsewhere, especially on floor, where she had a piked full-in, front double full to punch front, and double tuck when she last competed elite, passes that would make for a very strong NCAA-level routine.
Of course, NCAA gymnastics is all about impeccable form, and that’s where Alyona often lost tenths as an elite, despite her impressive difficulty. I’m sure taking away some of that difficulty will help her tidy up, and once she’s fully healthy, she’ll be an incredibly productive member for the Tigers.
LSU’s other three elites all dabbled in the U.S. program, but dropped back to level 10 after a season or two. Kiya Johnson, a two-time J.O. national all-around champion, qualified elite in 2015 and to nationals a year later, though she ended up withdrawing from the competition due to injury before returning to J.O. in 2018. Caitlin Smith qualified elite in 2014 and competed as a junior for three seasons. And Maddie Rau, who originally committed to Rutgers before a spot opened up for her at LSU super last-minute, competed at the elite level in the 2014 and 2015 seasons, moving to the brand-new World Champions Centre to train with Aimee Boorman for a couple of years before returning to her old gym, Cypress.
Of these, get ready for Kiya to be a star. A true all-arounder without a single weakness, Kiya will bring her biggest strengths on vault and floor, but she’s truly fabulous no matter where she goes up, and there are going to be a million perfect tens in her future (and she’s a key reason why LSU ranks second here).
3. Iowa State
I love that Iowa State has become a haven for international gym queens, currently boasting a roster of ten international gymnasts from all over the world, including Canada, Puerto Rico, Spain, Peru, Australia, and the UK. Five of these gymnasts are first-years this season, and all are hoping to bring something to the table for the Cyclones.
Most notable on this list is one of Puerto Rico’s top elites, Andrea Maldonado, who comes into the program as a junior after a busy year that included making the all-around final at the Pan American Games and then getting a front triple full on floor named for her in the code of points at the Cottbus World Cup. Floor has always been Andrea’s standout, with her front tumbling some of my favorite in the world, but she also has some aggressive beam work, and she’s a strong vaulter, so I’m sure they’ll be able to find plenty of ways to use her in lineups this season.
Andrea’s sister, Alondra, is also joining the team as a freshman. Originally from Puerto Rico, she’s spent the past couple of years training at Orlando Metro as a level 9, winning all-around and floor titles at Easterns this year. While it’s pretty rare to see a level 9 gymnast make a D1 lineup, Alondra shares her sister’s talents on floor, where her tumbling isn’t super difficult, but absolutely meets NCAA standards…and she can perform, too!
One of my favorite international-freshmen-to-watch this year is Laurie-Lou Vézina, known as Loulou, who has been a standout in the Canadian program for about eight years thanks to her lovely artistry and unique skills, such as a clear hip hecht straight into a back tuck dismount on bars and a Yurchenko full-on back pike on vault. I think beam is where Loulou has the most potential to score well in college, but I also think she could add strength to all lineups for this program if needed.
Once Australia’s top junior prospect going into her senior career, Jade Vella-Wright ultimately competed only twice at the senior level, finishing 13th at Gymnix and 10th at nationals before she was sidelined by a knee injury that kept her out of competition over the past couple of seasons. At her peak, Jade was a true standout on vault and floor, and I hope to see her back at a high level on both, as she’s a tremendous competitor and makes the sport a lot of fun to watch.
Jade is joining the program a year early after initially committing for the 2021 season, and coming in with her is Laura Cooke, a British gymnast who was on the English national squad for six years, which came with several international opportunities. In 2017, she won the all-around title at the Leverkusen Cup in Germany, and in 2018, she won the all-around, vault, and beam titles at the Salamunov Memorial in Slovenia. In her final elite season, Laura finished 11th at English Championships and 27th at British Championships, and she’s another one who should be especially helpful on vault and floor.
The Sooners have this year’s biggest elite catch in Ragan Smith, the 2016 Olympic alternate who was looking to take the world all-around title in 2017 until an injury just minutes before the final kept her out. Now that she’s finally healthy after years of basically living in a booth, Ragan is looking to be a major threat both within the Oklahoma program as well as at the national level. She’s strong absolutely everywhere, which was true at the elite level and will be even more apparent now that she’ll be focusing on downgraded routines (especially on bars!), and once she finds her groove, she’ll be a consistent 39.5+ all-arounder.
Ragan is Oklahoma’s only “true” new elite in the sense that she had regular competitive experience at that level, but a couple of others joining the Sooners this year have also gotten their feet wet in international competition. Vanessa Deniz attended an elite qualifier in the U.S. as a junior, and then in 2018, she traveled to Györ with the Region 7 all-star J.O. team to compete in a friendly meet against some of Hungary’s top elites. Then there’s Jenna Dunn, a local Oklahoma kid who trained at Bart Conner Gymnastics and competed in the elite sessions at several Nadia Comaneci Invitationals alongside some top international elites. Both gymnasts are also accomplished J.O. competitors, and should bring some solid depth to the program.
The Crimson Tide’s struggles last year were notorious, but they only lost three seniors in the 2019 graduating class, and they’re gaining so much this year, with some top J.O. athletes joining the program in addition to getting a super talented former elite with Luisa Blanco in the freshman class.
Luisa, who trained at WOGA, competed elite at the national level for two seasons in the U.S. program. One of those rare gymnasts who reaches the elite level as a senior, Luisa easily qualified to the elite level on her first try in 2017, and she made it to nationals that same year, incredibly difficult to do under the senior requirements. Luisa finished 12th at nationals that year, and then 17th in a deeper pool the following year, and she also got experience in several international fields, making the bars and beam finals at Gymnix in 2018, and medaling on beam in all three of her WOGA Classic appearances between 2017 and 2019.
Beam is absolutely an event where Bama needed improvement last year, and Luisa should bring not only big scores but also her beautiful lines and fluid connections that made her such a favorite on this event in elite. She’s also going to be a big deal on bars, she has a generally solid FTY, and her tumbling on floor has included passes that are above-average for the NCAA level, including a super clean arabian double front and double pike.
From the beginning to the end of her elite career, Hannah Joyner won my award for being a badass at working super hard to improve so much over time. Part of her improvement came when she moved to Texas to train with Aimee Boorman almost immediately after the World Champions Centre opened at the end of 2014, and then after two years of competing at the elite level, she finally got her nationals berth in 2016, finishing 25th in the junior division.
When Aimee moved to EVO Gymnastics in Florida, Hannah followed. Though she dropped down to level 10 in the 2017 season rather than opting to compete as a senior elite, she continued getting better and better, qualifying to nationals in both 2018 and 2019, finishing sixth all-around both years, and winning the silver medal on beam in 2018.
It was a huge deal when Hannah originally committed to Temple to compete under coach Umme Salim-Beasley, but when Umme got the head coaching job at Rutgers going into the 2019 season, Hannah again decided to pack up and follow along, which I absolutely love. She clearly puts a lot of trust in her coaches to help take her to the next level, and though she and Rutgers are often pretty underrated, I think Hannah has the potential to have one of the biggest under-the-radar debuts in the 2020 season, and could help kick-start a new era at Rutgers alongside her coach.
One of my all-time favorite Canadians, Jade Chrobok, joins the Cardinal this year, bringing her super well-rounded all-around program with her to help add depth on every apparatus.
Once one of Canada’s top juniors, Jade made her senior debut in 2017 with an Elite Canada win, she’s a two-time national all-around bronze medalist, and she has one of the top senior international resumes among all of the elite freshmen this year, including two Pan American Championships appearances (she’s the 2017 Pan Am bars champion), the 2018 Birmingham World Cup, where she finished fourth all-around, and the 2018 Commonwealth Games, where she came in last-minute to help her team to the gold medal with especially strong routines on bars and floor.
With bars often an iffy event for Stanford, Jade has the potential to add immediate help here, and I think she’s going to be just as valuable on floor. At one time, Jade had a great Yurchenko 1½ in her arsenal, and though I haven’t seen her compete it since 2018, there could be a possibility that she could bring it back for her collegiate career, which would also be big for the team.
The Gym Dogs get another one of my favorite Canadians with Haley de Jong on the roster. As a junior, Haley was good, but not super notable, but then as a senior, she really began to come into her own as a gymnast to become one of the most memorable performers thanks to her high energy, fantastic attitude, and super solid routines.
Haley captured attention when she swept the Salamunov Memorial in her return from injury in 2017, and her work at Elite Canada and Gymnix in 2018 helped her earn a spot on the Pac Rims team that year, where she won all-around and floor bronze in addition to (somewhat shockingly!) the senior bars title. She finished up her senior career in 2019 with two silver medals at Gymnix, on vault and floor, and a sixth-place all-around finish at nationals, putting her in serious contention for a spot on the worlds team.
Floor is where Haley truly shines (she was doing NCAA-caliber performances as an elite, which is my absolute favorite), and I hope to see her make lineups on that event this season. She has also competed a DTY in the past, and so at full health, she could bring some power to the lineup there, and then she’s strong at both bars and beam, with a big Ray and a double layout part of her bars set, and a Kochetkova and side aerial to 1½ dismount on beam. She could be one who takes a bit of time to warm up to the NCAA scoring system, but I have no doubt she’ll be key to the Gym Dogs in the coming years.
9. Arizona State
I’m on a roll with the Canadians here, but Arizona State is so, so, SO lucky to add Hannah Scharf to its roster. Hannah qualified to elite in Canada the year she turned 17, and in her debut performance at Elite Canada, she absolutely shocked me. Finishing 10th all-around, Hannah’s debut was epic. She hit all of her events with a really excellent skill level, and even though she wasn’t going to be a major threat to make any international teams, that first day I saw her compete I was like, NCAA, get this girl NOW.
Thankfully, ASU snatched her up pretty quickly, and Hannah continued her elite career over the next year in Canada, wrapping it up with a 16th-place finish at nationals in 2019. The Sun Devils lost eight from its roster over the past year, and they’re also dealing with injuries, including having star gymnast Cairo Leonard-Baker on the sidelines at the moment, so Hannah has an opportunity to make an immediate impact as an all-arounder. Vault and floor are going to be her best assets, as it’s where she’s most consistent, but once she gets a bit more experience, you’ll see that she’s going to be just as productive on bars and beam as well.
10. Southern Connecticut
After a devastating start to the season with the loss of junior Melanie Coleman in a tragic training accident in the fall, Southern Connecticut has to keep moving forward, and they recently picked up Puerto Rican national team member and 2019 world championships team member Bianca Leon to help them along the way.
The Miami-based gymnast who began training at Leyva Gymnastics in 2018 is hoping to help the D2 program out on all four events, but her beam is breathtaking, and it’s where she’ll be most impactful. A true beam queen, Bianca is the 2018 Central American & Caribbean Games beam champion, and in 2019, she won the national title on that event in Puerto Rico in addition to also competing at the Pan American Games and world championships.
Melanie Coleman was a beam specialist for SCSU, so I think Bianca’s addition to the team is a beautiful way to honor Melanie’s talent and legacy.
Mackenzie Robinson brings two international elite programs to Alaska, having initially started her career in Canada before getting the opportunity to compete internationally for Jamaica when she became a senior in 2017. Mackenzie has represented Jamaica at the WOGA Classic, Gymnix, and Pan American Championships in addition to two world championships, and though her difficulty was never enough to make her really stand out at the elite level, you could see from her routines at these competitions (especially beam and floor, and I can’t wait to see her get an Alaska floor routine!) that she was going to be incredibly in-demand for NCAA.
Aria Brusch, who trained at CGA, was consistently one of the juniors-to-watch after beginning her career with a nationals bid in 2014 when she was just 13 years old. She placed 16th that year, but then dropped to 26th the next before improving to 21st in her final year at the junior level in 2016. Unfortunately, that was it for Aria, who dropped back to level 10 a year later, finishing 11th at J.O. nationals in 2018. Bars and floor were always my favorites for her as a junior, but I think she’s definitely going to be one we see easing her way into a fantastic all-around career for the Tigers.
We love a school with some international flavor, and Ball State is bringing it in droves this year as they welcome Marimar Perez-Banus of Chile and Megan Phillips of Canada.
Marimar has a lengthy international career that includes a silver medal on bars at the 2016 South American Championships in addition to appearances at the South American Games and Pan American Championships in 2018, and then the Pan American Games in 2019. Bars should be her biggest value for Ball State, though she’s a pretty strong all-arounder as well.
As for Megan, she’s had a strong elite career in Canada, beginning as a novice in 2013. She finished her junior career with a fifth-place finish at nationals in 2016, and then started 2017 with a bang as she took silver in the all-around and gold on beam at Elite Canada, a huge breakthrough for her, though after two seasons at the senior level, she dropped back to J.O. competition. She’s unfortunately dealt with some injuries in the past year, taking her out of the 2019 Canada Games, but she managed to return well enough to place fifth at J.O. nationals in May, and I think she’ll be an excellent addition to the team, particularly for beam and floor.
One of my favorite moments in U.S. junior competition was watching Adriana Popp attempting the most epic “the mat is lava” save after missing her layout series on beam. A true beam standout, Adriana debuted at the elite level in 2014, but then she missed nationals the following year, got injured, and ultimately dropped back to level 10 in 2017, what would have been her first year as a senior (though thankfully, while already back at level 10, she still got to compete in the elite session at that year’s WOGA Classic, winning silver on beam in her one and only senior elite competition).
Adriana qualified to J.O. nationals in both 2018 and 2019, finishing 24th all-around last year after struggling on bars, though she proved she’s still a beam queen with a silver-medal finish there, and I can’t wait to see her bring her gorgeous style and flair to the event at Boise State (and her floor should be a pretty excellent addition as well).
A member of the English national squad, Olivia Williams has a long history of competing at the elite level in Great Britain. In this past season, she finished eighth all-around at the English Championships before going on to finish 17th at the British, and in 2018, she earned a spot on one of the English teams (alongside Iowa State freshman Laura Cooke) that traveled to compete at the Salamunov Memorial, where she finished fourth all-around and won the gold medal on floor, her best event and where she has the greatest ability to contribute for BGSU.
Ariana Agrapides has one of the wildest gymnastics stories out there. She began the sport at age eight, an incredibly late start when you consider that most gymnasts are barely out of diapers the first time they step into the gym, and yet by age 12, she was the U.S. junior national vault champion thanks to one of the best DTYs in the junior program’s history. But when she returned a year later, she had downgraded many of her skills and didn’t look quite as sharp, and then she disappeared from gymnastics entirely, all at age 13.
As rumor had it, Ariana was simply burned out from the sport and decided to run track instead. But then in 2017, she popped back up in level 10, finishing second on vault at states and regionals before going on to qualify to J.O. nationals in 2018 and then win the New Jersey state vault, floor, and all-around titles in 2019. Despite the whirlwind ups and downs of her career, I’m so beyond excited that she found her way back to the sport. She has so much to contribute on vault and floor at the NCAA level, and I hope she has a blast doing it.
After getting her start as a super promising U.S. elite, including a nationals berth as a senior in 2016, Kaitlin DeGuzman shifted her focus to competing internationally for the Philippines, representing the country at the Asian Championships and Southeast Asian Games in 2017. Her Southeast Asian Games appearance included a bronze medal on beam, a silver on floor, and the gold on bars, which was extra special as her mother, Cintamoni DeGuzman, was the SEA Games bars champion back in 1995.
The Philippines had huge plans for Kaitlin, including sending her to the Asian Games and world championships, where the ultimate goal was to earn an Olympic bid, but unfortunately, she missed out on the Asian Games after initially being listed on the roster, and we never again saw her compete, reportedly due to injury. Originally committed to Oklahoma, I think Kaitlin will have a better chance of affecting the lineups at Kentucky once healthy. Bars was always her best and cleanest as an elite, but “clean” is something that describes all of Kaitlin’s gymnastics, and I could see her breaking any lineup for the Wildcats.
Clara Colombo is making history as the first Italian gymnast to compete in NCAA, and I’m so here for it. Clara had a super busy career in Italy, regularly competing throughout the Serie A league for several years in addition to earning some international assignments as a junior. Though she’s always been a solid all-arounder, bars has consistently been her standout event, and at her final national championships in 2018, she won the bronze medal on the event behind Giorgia Villa and Alice D’Amato. Clara will absolutely add depth to Nebraska’s bars, and I hope she’ll also get the chance to contribute elsewhere in the future.
McKenna Appleton qualified elite in 2014, competing at the American and U.S. Classic meets, though she didn’t advance to nationals. After qualifying to elite again at the WOGA Classic in 2015, she unfortunately was injured and missed the 2015 and 2016 seasons before dropping back to level 10 a year later. In 2017, she earned a nationals bid after winning beam and finishing second at regionals, but that’s been it for her, and she’s planning on only competing bars and beam at UNC. Time will tell if/when she’s able to compete, but McKenna spent a literal decade at Hill’s Gymnastics, so you know she’s gonna be good if she can get back.
Amy Bladon is another longtime elite for Canada, beginning at the novice level in 2013. She has experience at multiple Elite Canada, Gymnix, and national championship meets, including a tenth-place nationals finish as a senior in 2017, and she competed at Elite Gym Massilia in 2017, winning bronze on vault in the open division. She has competed a Yurchenko 1½ in the past, and her work on beam and floor has generally been quite strong and consistent, though she missed the majority of the 2019 season, so it’s possible she could be coming into her collegiate career with an injury.
San Jose State
Like her Shenderey club teammate Hannah Scharf (scroll up to read about her starting her career at ASU this season), Emma Milne was a late bloomer in elite gymnastics, also beginning in 2018 at the same age and time as Hannah, and she’s going to be huge for the SJSU program.
Emma’s start wasn’t as strong as her teammate’s. Finishing 24th at Elite Canada in 2018, that meet marked the beginning and end of her elite season that year, but when she returned in 2019, she upped her score by five points to finish 13th, earning a spot at nationals, where she finished 15th. She also got some international experience last year, representing her club at Gymnix and then getting to wear the maple leaf at the Mersin Challenge Cup, where she made the bars, beam, and floor finals. Like her former club teammate, Emma can be hit or miss at times, but when she’s on, she’s a fantastic competitor with huge skills on bars (she boasts a Jaeger, Ray, Pak, Chow, and full-twisting double layout!) and floor (last year she competed a 1½ to double pike, 2½ to front tuck, and a double tuck).
SJSU has another new Canadian on the roster this year, with Jada Mazury also joining the Spartans. Jada’s only elite experience came in 2018 when she finished 22nd all-around at Elite Canada, but she had a memorable floor routine there, and is overall a pretty well-rounded gymnast. At Canada’s J.O. nationals this year, she finished 17th all-around.
Kind of surprisingly, UCLA only has one elite this year (shoutout to all of the 2020 Olympic defer-ers!), with Kalyany Steele joining the program after an excellent but short-lived elite career in the U.S. Kalyany qualified elite in 2015, and a year later, she made it to nationals, finishing her first day of competition ranked sixth, though an injury cut her meet short, leaving her unable to finish. She returned as a senior a year later, winning all-around bronze at the U.S. Classic before finishing 13th all-around at nationals, but then she completely disappeared from competition.
At her best, Kalyany was a terrific vaulter with a brilliant DTY, even as a junior. I thought she might one day be a big threat for senior teams, but with injuries keeping her out of our sight over the past two years, it’s hard to say where she will fit in at UCLA. In addition to vault, she also put up several nice bars and beam performances, but UCLA is usually pretty stacked on both events. I think eventually, she could end up being an incredibly productive member of the team, especially as she continues gaining experience and growing with the team.
So, Ronni Binstock wasn’t an elite in the traditional sense. She came up fully in the J.O. program and was a solid level 10 from 2014 through 2019, but she gets a little shout-out here because as a top Jewish athlete, she got to participate on the U.S. team that competed at the Maccabiah Games in Israel back in 2017, where she won the bronze all-around medal ahead of several well-known international elites, which is kind of a big deal.
Ronni also won the bronze medals on vault and floor as well as the silver on beam at the Maccabiah Games, and her J.O. career has been just as impressive, with nationals berths in 2017 (11th all-around), 2018 (18th all-around), and 2019 (11th all-around). I think she has the potential to work her way up to being an incredibly strong all-arounder for WMU, but based on what I’ve seen from her, I think floor is going to be a standout, and she could also add some depth on vault.
Article by Lauren Hopkins