FORT WORTH, Texas – The future of women’s gymnastics in the Valley of the Sun is burning bright and it appears to be only a matter of time before Arizona State makes that final pass and joins the ranks of the elite programs in the nation.
The Sun Devils get a chance to have their name known this weekend when Cairo Leonard-Baker and Hannah Scharf represent ASU at the NCAA national championship meet in Fort Worth, Texas.
Eight teams will by vying for the team title, including top-ranked Florida and defending national champion Oklahoma. Utah will also be competing in the meet for an incredible 39th consecutive time in school history.
The Red Rocks, which the gymnastics team at the school is known, have been a part of every NCAA championship meet. Utah also competed in six straight AIAW national meets prior to the NCAA assuming control of women’s athletics in 1982. Overall, this will be Utah’s 45th straight trip to the national championship meet.
Leonard-Baker, who will be competing in her third consecutive NCAA championship, and Scharf are among 20 athletes who will be competing individually after their teams fell short of a top two finish at the recent regional meets. Leonard-Baker will compete on bars, while Scharf will challenge for a national championship in the all-around.
“We are super excited to watch Cairo and Hannah showcase what they can do,” ASU coach Jay Santos said on Wednesday shortly after arriving in the Lone Star State to begin preparations for the final competition of the year. “I think they are both coming off their best meet of the year. They both bring an incredible amount of energy into their routines and it’s going to be fun watching to see what more they can accomplish.”
Leonard-Baker won the bars title at the recent regional meet in Salt Lake City after posting a 9.950. She shared the crown with Utah’s Maile O’Keefe and Kentucky’s Reania Worley. O’Keefe and her Utah teammates won the team title at the regional meet to advance to Fort Worth, along with LSU, which placed second in the final team standings. Worley joined Leonard-Baker as an individual qualifier in the event for the national meet.
“(Bars) is arguably her best event,” Santos said of Leonard-Baker, who earned honorable mention all-conference honors on the event this season after scoring a 9.875 at the conference meet.
That continued her long line of success in the event. She earned titles on bars in five meets during the regular season after winning five meet titles on bars last season before the national championship was cancelled.
Leonard-Baker, a two-time Junior Olympic national qualifier prior to her arrival at Arizona State, was a second-team All-American on bars after posting a 9.900 at the national meet in 2019. Only two competitors scored higher at that meet.
Leonard-Baker opened her collegiate career in a big way in 2018 and was voted the PAC-12 freshman/newcomer of the year after winning four bars titles, three floor titles and four titles in all-around during the regular season. She was a regular season All-American, as chosen by the National Association of College Gymnastics Coaches, in the allowed after her freshman season of 2018 and was named ASU’s most valuable gymnast that same season.
She was ASU’s first individual qualifier since 2016 when she advanced to the 2018 national meet by posting a 39.200 in all-around at the regional meet to punch her ticket to the national meet for the first time in her career.
“She is very dynamic on bars,” Santos said. “Her dismount is nothing short of spectacular with the way she gets sky high off the bars.
Leonard-Baker was taking a calm approach, at least on the surface, as she prepared herself for competition this weekend on the biggest stage.
“It’s simply a matter of focusing on one event and continuing to put together all the things I have been working on and making them come together at the right time,” she said.
Scharf, meanwhile, is coming off perhaps her best performance of the season and is looking forward to the opportunity to compete in Fort Worth. She is ranked No. 16 in the nation heading into the meet.
“I’m really excited,” said Scharf, a sophomore from Ontario, Canada, who will be making her first appearance at the national championship meet. “It is really an honor to be able to represent Arizona State.”
Scharf posted a 9.925 on floor at the recent regional meet in Salt Lake City and finished just behind four other competitors who shared the title with 9.950s. It was the seventh time this season Scharf scored at least a 9.9 on the event.
Scharf was first-team all-conference this season in the all-around after scoring a 39.350 and added a pair of second-team all-conference honors (vault, floor) to become the first ASU gymnast to earn three conference honors in the same season since 2006.
She scored at least a 9.9 on all four events this season, including floor, which Santos believes is Scharf’s best event.
“She has some big tumbling passes and she puts a lot of fun and excitement into her routine,” the ASU coach said. “And when she’s locked in on beam her routine is beautiful,”
Scharf has seven all-around, five floor and team beam titles to her credit this season for the Gym Devils
Scharf placed 10th at Elite Canada in 2018 and added a second 10th-place finish that same season at the Canadian Championships after being in fourth place after the first day of competition.
A native of Bismarck, N.D., Ray is a graduate of North Dakota State University where he began studying athletic training and served as a student trainer for several Bison teams including swimming, wrestling and baseball and was a trainer at the 1979 NCAA national track and field championship meet at the University of Illinois. Ray later worked in the sports information office at NDSU. Following his graduation from NDSU he spent five years in the sports information office at Missouri Western State University and one year in the sports information at Georgia Tech. He has nearly 40 years of writing experience as a sports editor at several newspapers and has received numerous awards for his writing over the years. A noted sports historian, Ray is currently an assistant editor at Amateur Wrestling News.