Hornets avert disastrous season to finish with 4 gymnasts in regionals


Thomas Frey - The State Hornet

Sacramento State senior gymnast Caitlin Soliwoda celebrates after competing on the uneven bars at the Nest on Friday, March 9, 2018. Soliwoda was one of four Hornets to qualify for an NCAA Regional.

Thomas Frey

As the Sacramento State gymnastics team left the University of Alaska Anchorage and its negative-nine degree weather on Feb. 3, it seemed like the Hornets’ season was completely turned around.

Sac State — which finished its year at the NCAA Regional on April 7— didn’t get the overall score it wanted, but the energy the team had been looking for through the first four meets was finally there.

With the season officially over, it’s clear that the meet in Anchorage set the tone for the remainder of the year.

In the final two-thirds of the season, the Hornets were led by the positive energy that seniors Caitlin Soliwoda, Courtney Soliwoda, Annie Juarez, Courteney Ng, Lauren Rice and Jennifer Brenner exhibited.

Thomas Frey – The State Hornet
Sacramento State senior gymnast Annie Juarez competes on the uneven bars at the Nest on Friday, March 9, 2018. Juarez was one of four Hornets to qualify for an NCAA Regional.

The Anchorage meet was the fifth of the season, but the first one that Sac State gymnasts wished counted towards their performances as a team.

The four meets in the month of January took the team to lows it couldn’t have imagined heading into the season. First, Courtney Soliwoda tore her Achilles Tendon before the season began. Then Caitlin Soliwoda left the first meet of the season early at Stanford on Jan. 8 with a heel injury and missed the Washington meet on Jan. 12.

The Washington meet would be the first one that Juarez would compete as an all-arounder, but it would also be the last one that Rice would be an all-arounder in.

Rice made back-to-back postseason appearances during her sophomore and junior years it seemed like she was poised to return for a third time.

However, the landscape of the season changed at the end of Rice’s third pass on her floor routine.

During her final landing, she fell and tore ligaments in her ankle that would keep her out of the lineup until the final meet of the season.

“I was standing right there when it happened,” Juarez said. “I still have nightmares about it. We weren’t doing very well until that happened and that was just like a bomb dropped. In our minds, Lauren Rice is always dependable, she is invincible.”

The Hornets struggled in the next two meets without Rice and everything spiraled out of control in the fourth meet of the season at San Jose State on Jan. 26.

The team had three falls on the balance beam and six falls total as the team scored only a 191.775.

“After San Jose, I was like, ‘We’re not qualifying as a team,’ ” Caitlin Soliwoda said. “That was the meet that I knew this wasn’t going to happen.”

After a mandatory conditioning practice early the following morning, the seniors held a players-only meeting where one gymnast at a time said what each is bringing to the team and what they could improve on.

And that worked. The team’s positive energy was apparent from the first routine back in Alaska. The gymnasts coveted winning the “stick-stick” which is awarded to competitors who nail landings.

This momentum carried into the rest of the season and the team’s leaders started producing quality meets.

Brenner was one of the seniors who rode the momentum to the regional in Salt Lake City. She qualified as a floor alternate after having five scores of at least 9.800 in the final half of the season. Until that point, she had recorded only one such score.  

Thomas Frey – The State Hornet
From left to right, Sacramento State senior gymnasts Annie Juarez, Courtney Soliwoda, Jennifer Brenner and Caitlin Soliwoda pose after practice at Byers Gymnastics in Elk Grove on Tuesday, March 27, 2018. The four seniors will compete in an NCAA Regional on Saturday, April 7 in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Juarez had her first career score above 39 in Alaska and went on score above 39 in five more regular season meets while qualifying for regionals as an all-arounder.

Caitlin Soliwoda went on to qualify for a second straight season as an all-arounder after averaging a score of above 39 for the entire season.

Her twin sister Courtney Soliwoda qualified on beam for the second straight season and scored 9.875 three times after the Hornets trip to Alaska. At the regional, she finished in 20th place on beam with a 9.800 and performed at the same time that Juarez was doing her floor routine.

“What was great about going the same time as Annie was that I had familiar music, familiar surroundings,” Courtney Soliwoda said. “It was a blessing in disguise to go at the same time as Annie, all Hornets going, it was the perfect way, we were all getting noticed.”

In the all-around event, if Caitlin Soliwoda or Juarez didn’t finish in the top two of individuals who weren’t on teams that qualified for nationals, their careers would be over. They were both right in the mix but the scoring on the uneven bars was vastly different between all four judges.

For Juarez, the scores ranged from 9.600-9.800 and for Soliwoda, the scores ranged from 9.700-9.900. The scores that differed so much, ending up virtually eliminating each from moving on.

In the end, Soliwoda finished in 11th place, while Juarez finished in 13th to end their careers.