No place like home
Penn State looks to capture national crown at State College
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. –- There are 12 – count ‘em, 12, an even dozen – men’s gymnastics national championship banners hanging from the rafters at Penn State.
The oldest one dates all the way back to 1948 -- the first year the championships were held following World War II – and the newest to 2007. Although no other school has more men’s gymnastics titles than Penn State, it’s the white space on the walls that gets head coach Randy Jepson’s attention.
That’s where the next championship banners will go. It’s a sermon that Jepson preaches every year on the first day of practice. There are expectations to be met, so go out and meet them.
“That’s why they come to school at Penn State to do gymnastics -– to try to achieve at that level,” Jepson said. “But what I have them focus on is not just the championships that are hung on the wall, it’s the empty space that remains. That’s what they are to fill. That’s their stage and what they work for and what they do that will determine whether they get to hang a banner or not.”
Penn State is ranked first in the nation going into this weekend’s national championship meet at … yes … Penn State’s Rec Hall. The last time school competed for the sport’s biggest prize on its home turf was in 2007, so it’s hard not to like its chances.
It’s obvious that Jepson’s student-athletes will have support so close to home, but he also points out that in order to safeguard them, he’s asked that they keep contact with friends and family to a minimum. Because of the team’s success this year, Jepson also doesn’t want to change the way it goes about its business.
“Another thing that we want to do is just make sure they keep their own routine,” Jepson continued. “That’s one advantage of being at home. You don’t have travel situations or hotels and whatnot. We try to take it as a positive, if we can.”
Jepson is cautiously optimistic going into the meet, but he’s certainly not foolish enough to guarantee a victory over any of the other elite squads that will be competing this weekend. The Nittany Lions may be ranked first in the nation going into the title weekend, but they also lost out on the Big Ten championship to Michigan a couple of weeks ago.
The game plan is simple. Don’t pay attention to the rankings and expect to meet teams that as formidable as they are –- if not more so.
“We know that we can go in and have a great meet, and if that’s enough to win, great,” Jepson explained. “We can also go in and have a very difficult time of things and really struggle. So you have to be ready to do the job, not matter what.
“Nothing will be given to you. Everything has to be earned. The ranking really goes out the window at this point, and it’s down to a toe-to-toe, knock-down, drag-out weekend.”
Penn State’s gymnasts, says Jepson, are very good on the pommel horse and rings. At the same time however, it’s sometimes touch-and-go on how well they perform on the parallel bars and floor routines.
Just behind Penn State in qualifying scores are Oklahoma, Michigan, Stanford and Ohio State, followed by Minnesota, Illinois, Iowa, California and Nebraska in the top 10. Air Force and Temple also qualified for the meet.
On any given weekend, any of them would stand a very real chance of winning. With so much on the line here, who knows what might happen?
“There’s some very, very good teams here,” Jepson said. “We can’t beat ourselves. If we have some mistakes, it’s going to be the end of the championship quest. So we’ve got to be healthy, be focused and be really consistent throughout the competition.”
And one other thing …
“Number two, we’ve got to not just get through, but really excel,” he added. “Our best guys have to come through and we have to set good scores up at the beginning of each rotation. So it will be a total team effort. We’ve got a very tough task ahead of us.”
Jepson has been a part of the Penn State landscape for years. A 1982 graduate, he began as assistant under the long-time men’s gymnastics head coach Karl Schier the following season. Jepson then took over the top spot in 1992 upon Schier’s retirement.
What would it mean to Jepson to do well? That’s an easy one.
“We would love to have a very sound and solid performance as a team,” he concluded. “We’ve pulled together a group of guys who started four years ago as freshmen who were very unheralded. Now that they’re seniors, they would like to go out with a great showing.
“This group of guys is really near and dear to my heart. I’ve won other championships with other teams. This team hasn’t. It would be just a wonderful thing to see them pull off a championship in a home situation here.”
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