Just one year ago, Megan Valentini competed in her first collegiate gymnastics meet.
She was nervous and inexperienced - and it showed.
As a freshman, Valentini was thrust into the spotlight, competing for the Falcons in three events. Overwhelmed, she struggled to find consistency. Like any young athlete, she had much to learn.
"With freshmen, I find that when they come in they're just not sure what to expect," coach Kerrie Beach said. "They need to get out there and compete several times before it's really clear to them what's going on."
Valentini's learning curve was interrupted when seven freshmen walked through the doors of Anderson Arena in September. No longer the baby, she had to figure out how to compete not just for herself, but also for a slew of new faces, each portraying the same look of uncertainty that had stifled her for far too long.
In that moment, Megan Valentini became a different gymnast.
"I think feeling like a leader helped me," she said. "There's been a change in my attitude. Last year coming in I was more nervous. Going out in big meets I didn't know what to expect. I know it this year."
On a team with three juniors and only one senior, the sophomore class was forced to assume veteran status. For Valentini, it began in practice and it's carried over into competition. She has hit every routine in BG's first three meets, emerging as the team's only gymnast without a major mistake.
Valentini's new frame of mind has resulted in scores of 9.7 on beam and 9.825 on floor - both higher than last year's season bests. She also netted the first individual title of her career, winning the floor exercise against Central Michigan two weeks into the season.
"I've really seen her come into her own with her confidence," Beach said. "She knows now that her team's there for her no matter what and she doesn't need to put so much pressure on herself. Because of that, she's been able to pay attention to some of the little details and we've seen her scores really excel on beam and floor."
As the first performer on floor exercise, Valentini serves the crucial purpose of setting the tone for BG's dynamic floor lineup. Mounting with a difficult front double twist, her steady performances lay the foundation for a floor squad that is ranked in the nation's top 20.
Valentini's ability to earn high marks - and win titles - in the opening slot is a testament to her abilities on the event.
"It feels really good to be able to get the same score as someone going up last," she said. "I feel confident in my routine and I really don't get nervous. It's good to see that I can start the team off strong every week."
Remarkably, Valentini's performances have been just as solid on the balance beam, an event that got the better of her last season. Second in the lineup, Valentini knows how devastating a fall early in the beam rotation can be.
She and Dawn Christman, the leadoff performer, bare the burden of providing confidence to young teammates that follow them; a notion that can all too easily become unraveled while in the air over a 4-inch-wide balance beam.
Valentini never explicitly accepted this responsibility, yet her work ethic in practice and audacity in competition illustrate that she understands - it's time to grow up.
"When someone's put in a position like hers, they either take ownership of it or they fall apart," Beach said. "Megan's really taken ownership of it..."It's the best feeling when you can put someone out there and it's not a question of whether or not they're going to hit. With her, it's become more a question of how awesome she's going to be this time."