The UCSB women’s gymnastics team opened the night with a touching tribute to the life of Mari-Rae Sopper, the coach-to-be who passed in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and finished the quad meet with a season-high team all-around score (188.525).

Sopper’s mother, Marion Kminek, and stepfather, Frank Kminek, were flown out by the team and honored with flowers, along with a poignant tribute delivered by senior team captain Jen Rudy.

“When ever Mari-Rae did something, she did it in a big way, with long lasting effects,” Marion Kminek said. “She will be remembered for her loyalty, strong values, excellent work ethics and spirit for life.”

Santa Barbara has dedicated this season to the life of Sopper and only hope they can live up to the standards she lived by.

“I can picture Mari-Rae out there with these girls,” Marion Kminek said. “I can see characteristics of her in all of them; they are a very focused, motivated and inspirational group. I will do anything in my power to help keep this program alive because that was my daughters dream.”

As for the actual meet, Santa Barbara was unable to place any gymnast in the top three on any individual event, but individual scores were improved across the board.

Eastern Michigan took the team title with a score of 193.525, followed by San Jose State (192.250), Davis (190.600) and UCSB. Eastern Michigan also claimed two individual titles, one of which Natalie Hashimoto claimed on the vault, to complement a third-place finish in the all-around competition.

“Tonight was somewhat of a somber night, with the reminders of a fallen friend and the recurring questions about the program’s future,” sophomore Lesley Ross said. “But we were determined to show the Kmineks our resolve and assure them that their efforts [in helping fundraise the team] are deeply appreciated.”

UCSB freshman Nicole Longnecker set career-highs for the second straight meet. She was in top form with team-highs on the floor exercise (9.725) and in the individual all-around competition (38.425). Unfortunately, she was unable to place in any event, just missing the top three in the all-around by .275.

Ross, a steady gymnast, recorded team-high scores on the balance beam (9.675) and uneven parallel bars (9.500).

“This team continues to battle and improve,” UCSB Head Coach Alanna Trimble said. “The Kmineks mentioned to me how impressed they were with the squad, and I know personally, and as group, that was very uplifting.”

Look for the Gauchos to build on the momentum gained last weekend when they travel to San Jose State on Saturday for a dual meet. Santa Barbara returns home in two weeks (March 8 at 7 p.m.) for its final home meet against Air Force, Boise State and Davis.

Inquiries into the fundraising effort should be directed to gymnastics coaches Trimble and Mircea Badulescu. For more information on Mari-Rae Sopper check out, which also has links to a fund for the gymnastics program.