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    Gymnastics Looking Towards Rewarding Season
    Stephanie Ouellette qualified for last year's NCAA Championships as a freshman.
    Stephanie Ouellette qualified for last year's NCAA Championships as a freshman.

    Jan. 23, 2012

    Raleigh, N.C. - Hanging high on the walls in Carmichael Gym are multiple red championship banners, vivid signs of past success.

    Down below on the vaults, balance beams and uneven bars, where NC State's women gymnasts flipped, tumbled, and pirouetted, were signs of a promising future.

    "This team is the most talented in a long time,'' said head coach Mark Stevenson, who started the program 33 years ago. "We have really good freshmen, a great sophomore class, a phenomenal senior class. I expect a lot from them."

    Foremost is capturing a fifth EAGL title, one of the nine goals the team prominently posted in their workout facility.

    While it's just January, the Pack is currently ranked 20th in the national polls and has already swept several individual awards from the EAGL.

    Sophomore Stephanie Quellette recently earned EAGL gymnast of the week accolades with a stellar all-around performance, junior Rachel Fincham was the specialist of the week, and freshman Lane Jarred captured rookie honors all after the recent home win over BYU.

    Quellette, Fincham, seniors Brooke Barr and Jess Panza and sophomore Diahanna Ham are multi-event leaders of this deeper Pack team, Stevenson said.

    Besides talent, all are driven with a winner's mentality.

    "They have an attitude about being successful that is amazing,'' Stevenson said. "They don't accept being unsuccessful. If they are unsuccessful, they go back and do it and do it and do it and do it until they are successful."

    In short, quitting is never part of their routines.



    Panza, who flashes an angelic smile and daredevil verve, goes all out despite dealing with scoliosis that causes her considerable back pain.

    Shining on the beam, she has collected five first-team EAGL citations in three seasons, and in 2011 won the H.T. Kennett Award as NC State's Female Athlete of the Year.

    Starting in gymnastics at age 3, Panza quit the sport her sophomore year in high school from "burn out." But now she's burning with desire, citing consistency, staying healthy and reaching the nationals as specific goals.

    Like Panza, Barr is an honor-roll student with four first-team EAGL honors (3 in vault) and three second-team mentions.

    To reach that level she had to conquer an opponent named Fear.

    "I've dealt with a lot of fear,'' Barr confessed. "I didn't train on the beam because I was so afraid."

    But this, her last season, she confronted the intimidating foe and beat it with newfound boldness.

    "I did not want any 'What Ifs,''' Barr explained. "I pushed myself (through it) mentally. I want to have a solid season individually and as a team. Every year we've gotten better. This is the most talent we've ever had."

    Of the Pack women, Quellette is "Ms. Versatility" now, competing in all four events -- vault, floor, beam and bars -- and succeeding.

    Last year she posted four firsts, five seconds, seven thirds and qualified for the NCAA championships, the first State freshman to do that since 1993.

    Overall, these Pack gymnasts look like a team of gems with character, smarts and skills and have gotten strong support from athletics director Debbie Yow.

    Several team members have been active in the Athletes in Action/Fellowship of Christian Athletes ministry on campus. And the squad is loaded with All-Academic honorees that last semester collectively posted a GPA above 3.0, which is the norm in Stevenson's program.

    Funny thing, there was a time when Stevenson didn't think he'd be coaching anywhere. He was doing graduate work and making plans for another career when former athletics director Willis Casey asked him to start a women's gymnastics team. That was over three decades ago.

    "I said I'd give it a try and finish my doctorate in research and administration,'' Stevenson said. "(But) I fell in love with coaching. It's one of the most rewarding things you can do."

    And maybe, just maybe, this will be another one of his most rewarding seasons.

    By A.J. Carr

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