Yale Athletics

Heading into last March, the Yale gymnastics team had never won an ECAC title in program history. But much can change in a year, and the Bulldogs have now won the last two conference crowns.

Already the highest scoring team in Yale gymnastics history, the 2017–18 Elis walked into the Palestra at Penn on Saturday and dominated nearly across the board. Two early injury scares nearly derailed the title repeat, but the Bulldogs ended up topping the five other competing squads in all but one event en route to scoring a new school record score of 195.325.

This year’s team now holds three of the five highest scores in Yale’s record books. Much of their success has come from the Elis’ depth, which was on full display at the ECACs; after nearly suffering two devastating injuries during warmups, the team received key contributions from 13 gymnasts as they bested William and Mary, Brown, Penn, Cornell and Temple.

“I am so proud of this team,” head coach Barbara Tonry said. “They are gaining even more confidence that they may not have had as much of at the beginning of the season. From consistency and hard work they develop confidence, and confidence leads to championships. I think they now understand that.”

While the end of the day was all smiles from the Bulldogs, they were in a much more precarious situation moments before the start of the meet. According to Tonry, seven-time ECAC Rookie of the Week and all-arounder Jacey Baldovino ’21 was removed from the floor exercise and vault due to extreme pain from a plantar fascia injury.

Just a few moments later, fellow all-arounder and reigning ECAC Co-Rookie of the Year Jade Buford ’20 landed on her upper shoulder near her neck during a vault timer. After repeated checkups by the doctor and trainer, including consideration of a possible trip to the emergency room, she was cleared for competition.

Despite the injury scares, the Elis jumped out to the top of the leaderboard with a 49.000 on the floor exercise. Kiarra Alleyne ’19 and Alyssa Firth ’21 both notched scores of 9.775 with energetic routines. Emma Firmstone ’20, competing in the all-around, landed a 9.825 to tie her for fourth in the event. Buford was Yale’s last competitor, and she proved that her fall had not rattled her, scoring a meet-high 9.925.

Vault was the team’s next event and while it was Yale’s lowest-scoring event of the competition, it was crucial to the title as several Bulldogs posted season bests down the runway. Firth put up another 9.775, tying her career high and landing as the Bulldogs’ top score. Anna Jennings ’20 earned a season high herself, scoring 9.725 with her yurchenko full. Yale scored 48.575 as a team on vault and maintained the lead at the halfway mark of the meet, an impressive feat giving the extenuating circumstances facing the team.

“Having one of best scorers [Baldovino] out and hoping Jade was okay after the mishap on vault, the team handled that event well,” Tonry said.

The team moved ahead to uneven bars, where Roxie Trachtenberg ’19 scored a season-high 9.725 which was matched by the injured Baldovino. Megan Ryan ’18 punctuated her ECAC career with a crowd-pleasing 9.800. Jessica Wang ’19 highlighted the Bulldog rotation with her own 9.800. Ryan and Wang led all competitors in bars.

Yale closed out its victory with an impressive 49.025 on the balance beam. Charlotte Cooperman ’21 started things off with a strong 9.750, with Alleyne and Firmstone carrying the momentum by scoring a pair of 9.775s. Buford ended her day with a 9.825, the team’s second-highest beam score before Baldovino came in and put the exclamation point on the Elis’ meet with a 9.900, the second-highest Yale score in program history behind only her performance earlier this season. That sealed the championship for the team, as it outpaced second-place William and Mary by 0.8 overall points.

“Winning any championship is exciting; however, this year’s win was extraordinary given all the obstacles thrown our way starting in preseason,” Jennings said. “A lot of people counted us out, having lost our old assistant coach right before season and other things along the way such as surgeries, injuries — no setback kept this team from achieving our goals.”

In the all-around, Buford’s resilience paid off with a runner-up finish, edged out by William and Mary’s Katie Waldman by merely 0.05 points. Firmstone came away fourth.

At the awards ceremony following the meet, several Bulldogs took home recognitions. Baldovino earned ECAC Rookie of the Year for her phenomenal debut season. Buford, after winning that same award last year, was named the ECAC Gymnast of the Year in her sophomore campaign. Additionally, Yale’s James William, in his first season with the program, was awarded Assistant Coach of the Year.

“I am honored to have been selected because I’ve worked to correct little details to improve my scores year to year in order to maximize my contribution to the team,” Buford said. “I would not have had such a great season without the unwavering support and trust of my teammates; we have such a strong bond this year.”

After winning the Ivy League title in February, the Bulldogs had scored lower in their subsequent three meets — though two of those scores are still in the program’s top ten ever. However, this week marked the return of the upward trend that the team has been maintaining all season since scoring 191.550 in its first meet of the year.

The team has now concluded its conference campaign and will gear up for NCAA Regionals in two weeks. This year’s iteration has already had unparalleled success, winning Ivies and ECACs in the same year for the first time in history. Part of the spirit behind the squad during its historic run has been its pride in its grit in the face of struggles.

“Resilience. Adaptability. This team embodies those concepts to the fullest,” Jennings said. “We were thrown obstacles the moment preseason hit, but the instantaneous reaction from the entire team was to come together, set goals, and figure out what we needed to do as a team to accomplish them. We focus on only us every competition, no other competitor.”

The Bulldogs will have a chance to build on their momentum on April 7 at Penn State for the NCAA Regionals.

Brian Yeo | brian.yeo@yale.edu