'Fun-loving, hard-working' GymDawgs Honor Seniors
March 9, 2012
By Gregg Bell
SEATTLE - They've done far more at UW than merely flip, spin, jump, tumble, and land.
These Huskies senior gymnasts will remember Ruby Engreitz taking a chemistry exam in a laboratory at Arizona on the day of a conference meet there because a lab was the only place she was permitted to take it - and then sticking routines hours later as well as she ever has.
They will remember Amanda Cline, the independent, free spirit who couldn't wait to get out of her native Colorado to go to college, being so miserably homesick during her freshman year.
They will never forget how Cline and her family escaped the attacks on the World Trade Center while in New York the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.
"I've come a long way," Clines says now, with a bashful smile.
They will remember Hatsuni Akaogi battling through a torn anterior cruciate ligament. And the introspective trading cards they shared the night before meets, bonding the team even more.
And of course they will remember sneaking the gymnasts' van away from the leading, coaches' one and exiting a freeway outside Phoenix. Just so they could scarf down burgers on the sly.
"Somehow we convinced our van driver we just HAD to have In-N-Out," Anna Epps said, laughing with her senior classmates while sitting with them this week on the floor in the gymnastics room at Alaska Airlines Arena.
"Then we hid the trash before we saw the coaches again at the hotel."
Engreitz, Epps, Cline, and Akaogi are now trying to create one more memory of their eventful and ending Huskies careers: A trip to the NCAA championships.
The Huskies, ranked 24th in the all-important RQS rankings used to select and seed the NCAA tournament, are coming off their season high-tying score of 195.725 in an upset of No. 22 Arizona State last week. They will honor their seniors Friday before their 7 p.m. home regular-season finale against 31st-ranked San Jose State and 43rd-ranked Central Michigan (with another live chat here on GoHuskies.com).
"People recognize Washington is a program on the rise," Akaogi said.
That rise could get an opportune boost next month. For the first time since 2009, an NCAA gymnastics regional will be held at Alaska Airlines Arena. On April 7 UW will be one of six NCAA regional sites and will have six teams and other qualifying individuals that will be announced two weeks prior to the event.
The Huskies are scrapping to get home for those regionals. They have an outside shot at a top-18 ranking in the RQS, which would give them a preferred seeding for the opening rounds of the 36-team NCAAs -- and a better position from which to advance to the regional, and potentially to the NCAA finals.
If the GymDawgs can qualify for the Seattle regional as a team, they will have their best opportunity in three years to advance to the national championships.
"We're super excited!" Cline gushed when asked about a regional coming to UW in her final weeks as a college gymnast.
Last spring UW came within a disappointing, final routine and fractions of points at the regionals from advancing to the NCAA finals.
This season the Huskies started with an upset of No. 1 UCLA. They then endured inconsistency that has them ranked out of the nation's top 18 and seemingly below their true potential.
But the win over ASU, led by freshman McKenzie Fechter's superb performance in winning the all-around, suggested a peak is coming. And just in time for the seniors' last push into the NCAAs.
"After we beat UCLA things started to go down, then they started to go up. We feel like we are settling in now," Engreitz said. "Our last meet against Arizona State showed our true potential."
As Bowers said, looking back on her seniors careers from start to finish: "We have high expectations now."
Contending for regionals and potentially nationals is another example of how far this senior class, sixth-year coach Joanne Bowers' second at UW, has led Washington.
Engreitz, a native of the Seattle suburbs, has been a specialist on bars. Akaogi, who was born in Japan and grew up in Cupertino, Calif., was second-team all-conference in the all-around as a freshman. Then she tore her ACL in her knee and lost her junior year.
Yet she rehabilitated and was back on bars and beam sticking landings on a rebuilt knee again last week against Arizona State. She has exemplified the key to this senior class maintaining a new standard of excellence for UW gymnastics.
"We just kept up the work ethic, kept the atmosphere positive," she said.
When Cline was 11, she and her family were on vacation from their home in Aurora, Colo., and in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001. She, her father Ed, mother Deb, older sister Ashlen, younger brother Evan, plus a family friend were awakened in the World Trade Center Marriott hotel by the explosion of the first plane hijacked by terrorists slamming into the adjacent north tower of the World Trade Center.
They had slept in past their appointed time for a tour that morning at the top of the attacked tower. They escaped from the hotel through darkened and smoke-filled stairwells and out into the scene of catastrophic destruction with little more than what they were wearing. (Read about the Clines' remarkable story from a previous story here ).
Epps' competitive career ended last season because of chronic foot injury. Her battle while competing with the searing foot pain through two seasons earned her a lifetime of respect from her teammates and coaches as an inspiration.
"We need Anna!" Akaogi said, laughing along with her classmates Monday afternoon.
When these seniors arrived at UW, Bowers had a hard time finding six gymnasts worthy enough to fill a full lineup of events. Sometimes, the Huskies competed with just five.
"We have a competitive atmosphere," Epps said. "On the best teams in the country, you have to win just to get into the lineup.
"We are finally at that point now."
When they aren't commandeering vans for secret trips to burger joints, the Huskies spend nights before meets trading cards that have each of their goals for that meet written on the backs.
Engreitz recently was so anxious to stick landings at the ends of routines, she wrote down and articulated to her teammates and coaches the specific goal of slowing down her takeoffs before those landings.
The team started the practice this season - the cards came at the suggestion of assistant coach Elise Ray. The card meetings have brought the team even closer, focusing them on key details and establishing the best levels of mutual understanding and belief the program has had under Bowers.
"We just felt there were some meets when we were going in just hoping it goes OK," Bowers said. "It's definitely helped me understand all the different views on the team.
"I love hearing what they are thinking about. And I love them hearing what each other is thinking."
All those views are now squarely focused on advanced through to the end of the NCAAs, to cap an eventful and successful run for these seniors.
Engreitz, whose mother Rita Reitz is a speech-language pathologist in the Seattle suburb of Lynnwood, already has earned a psychology degree. Then last week she wanted to go into nursing. Though her athletic eligibility is expiring, the winner last year of an academic excellence award from UW's provost will stay around for an extra term of academics at Washington through next fall to complete pre-requisite courses for nursing school.
Cline, who has been an honorable mention all-academic selection in the conference, is about to earn a double major in communications and sociology. Epps, a member of the National Honors Society at Archbishop Murphy High School in Everett, Wash., is about to earn degrees in communications and business. Akaogi is about to receive her bachelor's degree in communications.
That's five degrees between the three of these exemplary student athletes, though they are not yet sure of what they exactly want to do with all those.
Well, they do have that experience running covert operations to fast-food stands.
"We are fun loving," Akaogi said, "and hard working."