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Jan 08, 2024

Team One: The Inaugural Year

The 2024 gymnastics season preview was featured in an earlier issue of IPTAY’s Orange: The Experience magazine.

On June 17, 2021, Clemson Athletics announced the launch of the Tigers’ gymnastics program. Less than a year later, Clemson Director of Athletics Graham Neff announced Amy Smith, a UCLA graduate, as the program’s first head coach, and the Clemson University Board of Trustees approved a $37 million expansion plan for gymnastics in conjunction with the lacrosse and rowing programs, to vault the gymnastics program off the ground.

Building a program from the ground up isn’t easy – gymnastics marks the third women’s sport added by Clemson in the last five years and will begin less than a year after lacrosse had its inaugural season in the spring of 2023. The Tigers found their leader in former UCLA All-American and National Champion, Smith, who has spent five seasons as the head coach at Utah State before taking on the reins of the Tiger program. Familiar with the ACC after spending five seasons as both an assistant coach and assistant head coach at North Carolina, Smith was ready for the challenge of bringing a National Championship to a program that has yet to have someone compete. With over 20 years of collegiate coaching experience at places that include Utah State, North Carolina, UCLA, Missouri, Florida and Kentucky, Smith knows what it takes to compete at a high level.

“To be given this incredible opportunity to lead Clemson’s very first gymnastics team is an absolute dream come true,” said Smith. “It is a distinct honor that I do not take lightly.”

“I hope to leave an impact at Clemson by finding student-athletes that feel just how special Clemson is and want to leave their own impact by building this team into one of the premier programs in the nation as quickly as we can.”

Assisting Smith in building the program is Erik Lewis. Lewis followed Smith after working closely with her for four years as an assistant coach and, eventually, her assistant head coach at Utah State. Lewis coached the Aggies to their first-ever Mountain Rim Gymnastics Conference Championship during the 2022 season. With his guidance, gymnasts at Utah State achieved the highest single-season average and National Qualifying Score (NQS) on the uneven bars for the program, Rebecca Wells – an all-around who transferred to Clemson and is a member of the inaugural 2022 signing class – was the 2022 MRGC All-Around Champion and Brie Clark – another transfer apart of the inaugural class – achieved the highest floor NQS the Aggies have produced under Lewis’ guidance.

With the addition of a new sport, Coaches Smith and Lewis knew that the transfer portal was going to be crucial for their initial signing class. Six transfers from Utah State, that includes Wells and Clark, found their new home at Clemson during the 2022-23 academic year. These six believed in the vision that Smith and Lewis aim to build at Clemson and were willing to spend an entire year training before actual competition begins this winter. Molly Arnold, Trinity Brown, Clark, Eve Jackson, Kielyn McCright and Wells brought collegiate experience to the first Clemson roster during the 2022 signing period. Less than a month later, the Tigers inked their first incoming freshman by signing Lilly Lippeatt as the seventh and final athlete to the first Clemson Gymnastics’ roster.

“Being a part of the inaugural team is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and I cannot say how grateful I am for this experience,” said Wells. “The lasting legacy we get to create and the culture we have been establishing since day one is something we will be able to look back and see our impact on. This team is special, and we are blessed to do this together in an exceptional place like Clemson. Being a part of Team Zero was an experience I would not trade for the world, and I cannot wait for fans to see what Team One has planned.”

After the initial signing class spent the 2022-23 year studying and training, Smith looked ahead to the second set of signees needed to foster a complete roster for the inaugural competition season. She added her first set of 2023 signees last November by adding Takoda Berry, Kate Bryant and Quinn Kuhl. Berry (Newport Beach, Calif.), a two-time U.S. Developmental team member and two-time National Qualifier, joined the Tigers as an eight-time bars champion. Bryant (Littleton, Colo.) was a 2022 Junior Olympic National Qualifier and five-time team captain while being a 2021-22 Level 10 Regional Qualifier. Kuhl (Holly Springs, N.C.) boasts an impressive gymnastics resume with three national qualifications (2019 Development Program, 2020 Nastia Liukin Cup and 2021 Development Program) and a CGN 4-star recruit ranking.

Smith added three additional signees in April with the addition of Maggie Holman, Lily Kurrack and Grace LaCrosse. Holman (Raleigh, N.C.) is a North Carolina Vault State Champion, a two-time national qualifier and a 13-time All-Around champion. Kurrack (Tampa, Fla.) made a splash in 2022 by being a Junior Olympic National Qualifier and earning second in the All-Around at Regionals, while also being a three-time regional qualifier. Rounding out the April signees was LaCrosse (Lake Zurich, Ill.), who was a two-time USAG Level 10 State qualifier, a Level 10 Regional qualifier and the 2020 Bars champion for her conference.

“From the moment I got to Clemson, it has felt like home!” said Holman. “The coaching staff was amazing during the recruiting process and played a big part in why I chose Clemson. Being part of a new gymnastics program is so special, and I am grateful to be a member of the process. I cannot wait to make history during the 2023-24 season with this team!”

Smith completed the 2023-24 roster by inking three, Sierra Church, Kaitlin DeGuzman and Lauren Rutherford, in June. Church is a 2023 USAG Level 10 National Qualifier, a North Carolina Academic Scholar, a North Carolina Scholar Athlete and a Nike Positive Athlete Award recipient from Lincolnton, N.C. DeGuzman transferred from Kentucky where she posted a career-high 9.925 on nars at NCAA Regionals, won the uneven bars three times during her career and posted a 9.80 on both floor and beam. The Dallas, Texas native was also a SEC Winter Sports Academic Honor Roll member and two-time Scholastic All-American. The final signee is Rutherford who transferred from NC State. The Roswell, Ga. native was a 2023 EAGL All-Tournament First Team selection on floor, All-Tournament Second Team on vault and bars and a 2023 All-EAGL Second Team honoree on floor. She was named to the All-EAGL Scholastic Team and a WCGA Academic All-American.

With a roster in place, the new Tigers are chomping at the bit to hit the floor for their first season. Following the B.O.T.’s approval, in January 2022, Clemson broke ground on its new state-of-the-art practice facility in December of last year. The 21,000-square-foot space will be home to the day-to-day operations and practice facility for the Tigers. The gymnastics complex will include a practice gym, offices, locker room, lounge and training room.

For competition, the Tigers will call Littlejohn Coliseum home. The 9,000 seat venue will mark the stage for Clemson’s inaugural year as the Tigers join Pitt, NC State and North Carolina as the ACC’s fourth gymnastics program, making it an official league sport.

This inaugural season is about creating a foundation that a legacy can be built upon for years to come. As Clemson introduces its first team, the Tigers look forward to competing in front of fans. Season ticket requests are now being accepted through the athletic ticket office. Fans are encouraged to get their requests in now to catch Team One have a chance to compete for not only an ACC Championship, but for an NCAA Championship. IPTAY members should also keep an eye out for ‘Building Legends’ on for an exclusive behind-the-scenes look at the gymnastics program leading into its first competition season.

“I very much look forward to giving the amazing Clemson community and fan base another team to get behind and be proud of,” Smith said with a smile.