Kent State's premier gymnast, Marie Case, leads with team-first mentality (with video)

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Marie Case certainly had reason to rejoice after the 2013 Mid-American Conference Gymnastics Championships had come to a close.

The incomprehensible amount of time and energy Kent State's junior sensation had put into becoming the best gymnast she could possibly be had been fittingly rewarded with a second consecutive MAC Gymnast of the Year honor, after Case repeated as the league's all-around champion, finishing in a tie for second on both beam and floor exercise.

But afterward, Case found herself shedding tears right along with the rest of the Golden Flashes. And they weren't tears of joy.

After sweeping all six conference foes during the regular season, Kent State finished a bitterly disappointing third at Saturday's MAC Meet, falling to co-champs Western Michigan and Central Michigan by literally the slimmest of margins, .005 of a point.

Individual accomplishments offered no consolation whatsoever for Case. She was beating herself up right along with her teammates, thinking back on all the things she could have done just a shred better to make up .005 of a point and avoid the heartache of failing to win the MAC Championships for a third consecutive season.

"Lots of tears. That was definitely the first thing," said Case, recalling her reaction following the MAC Meet. "It was definitely an emotional and mental hit."

While many elite athletes in an individually scored sport such as gymnastics will claim that the team is all that truly matters, few live by that creed like Case. You could still see the pain in her face as she sat in Kent State coach Brice Biggin's office Tuesday morning, rocking back and forth, with visions of that MAC meet no doubt circling through her mind as she stared blankly ahead.

This was no star athlete giving the team-first answer she thought the coach sitting beside her wanted to hear. Case's feelings were heartfelt.

"When you listen to her talk, it's never about an individual goal," said Biggin. "She's one of those athletes that understands this is a team sport; yes I want to do well, I want to be successful, but I want to do that because I want to help the team out. When you get great athletes that are unselfish, you've got the best of both worlds -- a kid that is very focused and very determined, but who also is going to make sure the other kids know we're in this together, that we have to do this as a group.

"She's a rare find. We count our blessings quite a bit."

A FUTURE STAR IS BORN

The grooming of Kent State's latest gymnastics phenom began at a typically young age, with Case following in the footsteps of her two older sisters.

"I started gymnastics when I was 3," she said. "Before that, I would climb on everything, hold on to door railings and climb on those. (Her parents) put us in gymnastics just to let out some energy."

Instead of just finding a fun way to wear herself out, Case found her true passion right away.

"I was always in it and I always loved it, and things just kept going," she recalled. "When I was 9 or 10, I started missing school for it or going to school late. I was getting a lot more skills all the time and really pushing myself, and that's when it became really time consuming and really tough. But I liked it because I was excelling at it."

Case starred for the Lakettes Gymnastics Academy in Erie, Pa., winning the floor exercise title and finishing fourth in the all-around at the 2009 Junior Olympics Nationals. Colleges quickly came calling and Case eventually narrowed her choice down to Kent State and Maryland.

"It was a tough choice. There was a lot of pressure from a lot of schools," she recalled. "Maryland told me that they were giving out one scholarship to three different girls, and whoever wants it, can have it. That was a lot of pressure to make a decision now. Then I came here and it seemed like they wanted me, and I felt good around here, like there's something about this place that I should be here."

Biggin knew right away that Case was no ordinary recruit.

"We'd watched her train, watched her workouts, and you could see she had that focus that you want to see as a college athlete," said Biggin. "Sometimes you'll go into a gym and you'll see kids kind of messing around, they take a fall and they just kind of laugh it off. With Marie, you saw if she made a mistake, there was a determination about her not to do the same thing the second time. She'll basically say, I'm not going to do that again and she doesn't. When you're trying to elevate your program, you have to be able to attract athletes like that."

Case burst onto he scene at Kent State, winning the all-around title in her very first collegiate meet. She wound up earning MAC Freshman of the Year honors after finishing fourth in the all-around at the MAC Championships, and ultimately helped the Flashes reach the NCAA Championships for the first time in the program's storied history by taking second at the regional meet.

"It was really a matter of taking a couple of things out of her routine because she knew about 30,000 skills, and you don't need 30,000 in college," Biggin recalled with a smile. "You've gotta be able to isolate what you do best. She's just a special athlete, but it's more than just her skill level. It's the way she carries herself."

Case backed up that stellar freshman campaign by earning her first MAC Gymnast of the Year award a year ago, winning the all-around, beam and floor exercise, then repeating the feat as a junior in 2013.

"(Repeating as Gymnast of the Year) is extremely difficult," said Biggin. "Since the time she's come in, we've seen not only what type of gymnast she is, but just the attitude she brings to the program."

LABOR OF LOVE

It's hard to believe any gymnast in the country outworks Case, whose preparation for each gymnastics season literally never stops.

"I don't go back home at all. I live in Kent year-round," she said. "I actually do gymnastics three-to-four times a week during the off-season. I do more conditioning and cardio then to just kind of lay off gymnastics and give myself a mental break from it. I really love conditioning and going in the weight room -- that's fun for me."

So fun that Case, an Academic All-American who carries a 3.45 grade-point average as an exercise science major, plans to become a strength coach after college.

"Then preseason comes and it's just grinding it out. I love preseason," said Case. "I like being able to push my body to where I think it's going to fail. That just prepares me for the season. Then during the season, you just keep going, keep grinding away. It's consistently tough, but it's fun."

Case enjoys workouts too much if that's possible, according to Biggin, who held her out of vault several times during the second half of this season in order to give her body a break and keep her fresh for the stretch run. Case reluctantly agreed to ease her workload.

"I'm feeling better this year than I have any other year," she said. "I think having that break on vault a little bit and watching my numbers in practice has helped."

"We know that she'd go all day if you let her," said Biggin. "You seriously have to keep a watch on her and say, 'OK, that's enough,' because if you don't say anything, she'll just go and go. She's like the Energizer Bunny. She doesn't stop."

PRACTICE WHAT YOU PREACH

Case certainly doesn't subscribe to the Allen Iverson theory on practice.

"The thing that's probably most impressive about her is that it doesn't matter if it's practice or a meet, she goes in with the same intensity and expectations," said Biggin. "I think that's why she's as successful as she is. Very few kids can bring that level of intensity every day in practice, but Marie can."

Case expects her teammates to follow suit. And if she sees that's not happening, she's not afraid to speak up.

"She may have had a great meet, but if she's not happy with how we did as a group, she's gonna tell them," said Biggin. "She's not afraid to stand up and say we didn't do well enough, we gotta do better. Sometimes it's not always the most popular thing to say, but it's what needs to be said and it means a heck of a lot more coming from an athlete than it does from a coach."

Case understands that being vocal is a crucial element of being a true team leader.

"I just like coming in and making sure everyone knows we have a common goal, and they should always be working toward that common goal," said Case. "When I see someone getting big-headed, I'll bring that down real quick. It's just how it's supposed to be. You're on the Kent State gymnastics team, you're not just a Kent State gymnast. If they're not pushing themselves 110 percent every day, it's not good enough. They should want to push themselves enough to get our team goals. I try to get on people as much as I can about that."

Case thrives on the pressure that being a leader creates. She took her turn on beam at the MAC Championships after two teammates had fallen off the beam, and produced a 9.800 in the clutch.

"I always feel people will watch me more if we're doing bad. I know I had every single eye on me at (the MAC meet) after we had two falls to see what I would do," she said. "I wish I could have done a better routine, but I went in and did a routine that was fairly successful. I know how to handle pressure and hopefully other girls can see that and train like that for pressure situations."

YOU HAVE TO BELIEVE

Case's leadership skills are currently being put to the ultimate test.

The Flashes are attempting to regroup after experiencing bitter disappointment at the MAC Championships and refocus for the NCAA Regionals, set for April 6 at the University of Alabama. Their confidence, once sky high after a stellar regular season, is now shaky as 23rd-ranked Kent State prepares to face some stiff competition that includes the No. 3 Crimson Tide, along with No. 9 Utah and No. 15 Brigham Young, among others.

Case was a key member of the Flashes' team that qualified for the NCAA Nationals in 2011, along with current seniors Rachel Guida, Lindsay Runyan and Lauren Wozniak, so they know it can be done. However, Kent State will also rely heavily on a group of talented, but inexperienced, freshmen and sophomores at the regional meet, whose belief in themselves and the team has been challenged like never before.

"It was such a great experience to go out there and compete at a high level (at the NCAA Nationals), and it's not impossible," said Case. "But only two classes have been to nationals; the rest will probably have to be convinced (KSU can qualify). We just have to be focused and believe that we can do it, thinking that you have this opportunity to do something amazing. We could have our best meet and still not qualify, but if we believe in ourselves and do our best, you can't ask for anything else."

If the Flashes stumble, Case still has an excellent shot to qualify for nationals as an individual in the all-around. But Case doesn't even want to consider that scenario.

"What I want people to realize is that the team is more important than anything else," said Case. "Coming from a small gym, I didn't have a big team at all, so coming here it's been great having that family-type atmosphere. I want everyone to take advantage of that and realize what they have here."

Biggin certainly realizes what he has in Case.

"We're lucky to have her," he said. "We feel very good about what's she's done and where she's going."

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Email: amoff@recordpub.com

Phone: 330-541-9445

Twitter: @MoffRC

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