2024 ACC Women’s Gymnastics Preview: North Carolina, NC State lead as Clemson looks to make a splash in first season

By Kasey Nelson | January 2, 2024
North Carolina's Lali Dekanoidze competes on bars at the 2023 Super 16 meet in Las Vegas.
© Matthew Smith/North Carolina Athletics

Welcome back, ACC Women’s Gymnastics.

After a 40-year hiatus, the conference has added women’s gymnastics as its 28th sponsored sport beginning this season.

The ACC last sponsored a conference championship in women’s gymnastics in 1984. However, with the addition of a women’s gymnastics program at Clemson, the ACC regained the necessary number of ACC institutions to again sponsor the sport. The other three ACC schools – NC State, North Carolina, and Pitt – previously completed in the East Atlantic Gymnastics League (EAGL). 

Who will come out on top in this historic season? NC State and North Carolina are currently the favorites to claim the conference title on March 23 in Greensboro, North Carolina. The Wolfpack return three super seniors while the Tar Heels have a returning All-American. But it would be a mistake to overlook the other two contenders in the conference, with Clemson attracting a mix of outstanding gymnasts who have already competed in the NCAA and talented newcomers, and Pitt putting a new head coach in place to rally its squad. 

Read on for a breakdown of the four teams, gymnasts to watch, and key matchups you won’t want to miss. 

NC State Wolfpack

The Wolfpack captured the one and only ACC Women’s Gymnastics Championship back in 1984 and notched another six titles in the EAGL conference. But with the last title back in 2018, they’ll be eyeing a win in 2024. Tied for 1st in the ACC preseason poll, the Wolfpack have the most NCAA regional experience and finished 15th in the nation in 2021. The team is returning three key contributors with their super senior veterans: two-time EAGL Gymnast of the Year Emily Shepard (’21, ’23), 2023 EAGL all-around champion Alexis Ortega, and 2023 EAGL floor co-champion Chloe Negrete. On the flipside, the Wolfpack loses six key routines from last season; we’ll see how well the Wolfpack can fill the gap as they return to action on January 6 when they head to Athens, Georgia, to face the GymDogs. 

  • Key Contributors: Chloe Negrete, Emily Shepard, Alexis Ortega
  • Key Newcomers: Ashley Knight, Maddie Hall, Katie Harper 
  • Key Losses: Gabrielle Diaz, Lauren Rutherford 
  • Potential X-Factor: Madison Benson
  • Key Matchup: NC State vs. North Carolina on Jan. 19 & Feb. 11 (Jan. 19 is the first ACC matchup of the season)

North Carolina Tar Heels

After tying for No. 1 with NC State in the preseason poll, the Tar Heels will be looking to put everything together this year to stay on top. They’ve topped the EAGL two years in a row by clinching the regular season title but came up short each year in the conference championship, finishing third in 2023 and fifth in 2022. The Tar Heels are returning EAGL floor co-champion Julia Knower and All-American and EAGL bars champion Lali Dekanoidze. But one big loss is Elizabeth Culton, who consistently scored 9.9+ on her three events: bars, beam, and floor. Overall, the team is packed with talent, and it will be exciting to see what the newcomers bring in the home opener meet on January 5 against Ball State, Rutgers, and Utah State.  

  • Key Contributors: Lali Dekanoidze, Julia Knower 
  • Key Newcomers: Jessica Naranjo, Camryn Rueda, Neve and Elly King
  • Key Loss: Elizabeth Culton
  • Potential X-Factor: Hallie Thompson
  • Key Matchup: North Carolina vs. NC State on Jan. 19 & Feb 11 (Jan. 19 is the first ACC matchup of the season)

Clemson Tigers

The Tigers are one of the most anticipated teams to watch entering the 2024 season. Because it’s their inaugural season, there’s a lot that still needs to play out, but the team came in ranked No. 3 in the ACC ahead of Pitt. What we know is that they’ve recruited talented gymnasts, many with NCAA experience, including six from Utah State, where head coach Amy Smith coached for five seasons. Former NC State gymnast Lauren Rutherford is a big gain for Clemson, proving to be a consistent contributor on three events with the potential to bring home big scores. Utah State transfers Rebecca Wells, First Team All-MRGC all-around (’22), and Brie Clarke, Second Team All-American (’22), will also be key competitors to watch. The Tigers are set to open their historic season at home on January 12 when they take on William and Mary. 

  • Key Contributors: Lauren Rutherford, Rebecca Wells, Brie Clark
  • Key Newcomers: Lilly Lippeatt, Quinn Kuhl 
  • Potential X-Factor: Kaitlin DeGuzman
  • Key Matchup: NC State vs. Clemson on Feb. 2 

Pittsburgh Panthers

Coming off two consecutive seasons with a last-place finish in the EAGL conference, the Panthers are looking to climb in 2024 with a new conference and new head coach. Casey Jo MacPherson is leading the team after serving as associate head coach at Missouri, which reached a fifth-place national ranking in 2022. Another upside for the Panthers is the return of NCAA regional individual all-around qualifier Hallie Copperwheat and NCAA regional individual beam qualifier Reyna Garvey. Both have the potential to bring big scores to the Panthers as Copperwheat broke 9.95 on beam and floor and Garvey reached 9.95 on beam last season. But a key loss is Natalia Pawlak, who transferred to Alabama. As a Panther, she was a top contributor on bars, notching a career high of 9.95. Pitt kicks off their 2024 season at the Keystone Classic on January 5 against Penn State, Penn, and Temple. 

  • Key Contributors: Hallie Copperwheat, Reyna Garvey
  • Key Newcomer: Emily Todd 
  • Key Loss: Natalia Pawlak
  • Potential X-Factor: Arayah Simons
  • Key Matchup: Clemson vs. Pitt on Jan. 21