April 14, 2010

 

By Alex Raskin
Special to NCAA.com


The new decade has a distinct familiarity for Mark Williams, which is  good considering he’s coached Oklahoma to five NCAA Men’s Gymnastics Championships over the past eight years.

“It’s a real similar scenario to the team that won at West Point in  2005,” said Williams.

That year, the Sooners took home a national title thanks to significant contributions from freshmen Taqiy Abdullah-Simmons and Jon Horton.

Coming off a second-place finish in 2004, Williams explains that his youngsters were “the missing ingredient that got us over the top,” in 2005.

Oklahoma will need its freshman to be that vital piece beginning Friday at the NCAA Men’s Gymnastics Championships at West Point, after watching the Stanford Cardinal take home the national title last season.

In 2009, the Sooners set a single-meet NCAA scoring record, finished undefeated, had 11 team members receive All-American honors and claimed 50 individual titles including Steven Legendre’s three individual National Championships.

What Oklahoma did not do, was win a ninth NCAA title.

“We didn’t finish what we started last year,” said Williams. “There is a little bit different attitude for this team. The new guys came in  and felt: let’s make sure we take this from the beginning to the end.”

So once again the Sooners will be competing for an NCAA National Championship at West Point, and once again two freshmen may be end up being the difference.

Rookies Alex Naddour and Jacob Dalton have joined Legendre at Oklahoma  (and on the U.S. Senior National Team) to form one of the most talented, and versatile, rosters in the country.

“So much of gymnastics is based on individual performance and yet so much is team,” Williams said. “I feel like I’ve been very successful in making guys better than they are. As a group, they’re better than they would be had they gone out there as individuals. For Alex, it was very different for him to be a part of a team environment,” said Williams of Naddour, who specializes in the pommel horse and parallel bars. “He had to push himself more than he had in his junior program.

“(Dalton) has been like that from the beginning and he’s been a workhorse,” Williams continued. “Alex has had to work a little harder in that area, but if he can be the guy I envisioned from day one, I think we’ll do very well.”

As good as the freshmen have been, Legendre is still the unquestioned  leader of the Sooners.

“I definitely feel like Steve is kind of the driving force behind this team,” said Williams.

Legendre won last year’s NCAA all-around National Championship by posting a score of 90.500 in addition to finishing first in the floor (15.625) and vault (16.325).

Conversely, the defending champion Cardinal will be relying on experience in hopes of repeating. Despite having eight returning members from last year’s team, Stanford has been inconsistent in 2010 because of injuries.

Greg Ter-Zakhariants and Kyle Oi have three All-American selections between them, but the pair has dealt with injuries this year and only the former has a chance to compete at West Point.

“We lost eight routines that we weren’t expecting to lose,” explained Stanford coach Thom Glielmi.

“Filling in those eight routines, that is what we’ve been working on all year,” he continued. “We haven’t had the same lineup in one competition… Every team has some injuries here and there that you have to deal with.”

Ter-Zakhariants isn’t currently in Glielmi’s rotation for this weekend, but could be pushed into service on the pommel horse if the Stanford coach sees fit.

The injuries and inconsistency reached a peak last week when the Cardinal took a disappointing third place at the 2010 Mountain Pacific Sports Federation Championships. Oklahoma took the top spot in that event, but nobody is counting out Stanford this weekend.

“Stanford has a very talented team,” said Williams. “They really struggled at the conference championship, but they beat us head-to-head in a dual meet back in Nebraska.

“If Stanford has their best day, they may be the team to beat,” he added.

Of course, there are more than two teams competing.

The Big Ten is sending six schools, including top-ranked Illinois, Michigan, Ohio State, Minnesota, Penn State and Iowa, while the MPSF will be represented by the Sooners, Cardinal, Cal Bears and Nebraska.  

Army, the host school, along with Illinois-Chicago and Temple will be competing for a national championship from the Eastern Intercollegiate Gymnastics League.

The Fighting Illini rank tops in the country in the pommel horse and parallel bars while the Sooners are the team to beat in the floor exercise and vault. Michigan is the top-ranked school on the high bar.

The Big Ten champions, Illinois also has the top-ranked gymnasts in the pommel horse (Daniel Ribeiro) and the high bar (Paul Ruggeri) while Stanford’s Tim Gentry (vault), OSU’s Brandon Wynn (still rings), and  Kyle Bunthuwong of Cal (parallel bars) are also top contenders. The Sooners’ Legendre is the top-ranked competitor in the floor exercise and all-around.

In fact, the majority of the U.S. Men’s Senior National Team will be on site this weekend, which has tremendous implications for the 2012 London Games.

“Currently, around 70 percent (of the U.S. team) is made up of either current NCAA gymnasts or former NCAA gymnasts,” said Williams. “I think these championships have at least two or three guys that will make the team.

“You could conceivably fill the entire team just from what we have at this meet,” added Williams. “However, my ex-gymnast Jon Horton is probably going to have something to say about that.”

As exciting as the relationship between the NCAA championships and the Olympics is, this is the event these athletes and coaches have been working towards all season.

“I’ve been to the Olympics as a coach,” said Stanford’s Glielmi. “(The NCAA championships is) one of the best gymnastics competitions in the world. It’s definitely the most fun. It’s definitely a competition that all these student athletes will remember fondly. Hopefully they all enjoy it as much as the coaches do.”

The event starts Thursday with the two pre-qualifying sessions, which will be followed by Friday and Saturday nights’ championships.