Sometimes, a little new blood can be a great energizer.
The Oklahoma women’s gymnastics team is one of the best in the nation this year, and the Sooners’ talented group of newcomers is an integral reason why they are No. 2 in the latest national rankings.
While the squad boasts seasoned veterans like junior Taylor Spears, who has won 11 individual titles and tops the nation with a 9.9 average on the balance beam, two freshmen and a sophomore returning after a two-year hiatus from the sport have made quite an impact on head coach K.J. Kindler’s group.
Kindler recruited this year’s freshman class knowing she would need to depend on them for instant results.
“We purposely went out and recruited athletes that were good in the all-around and good in pressure situations like regionals and nationals,” Kindler said. “We were looking for athletes with experience and sometimes elite athletes don’t have as much competitive experience as those on the Junior Olympic level. We knew we were going to have to use them right away.”
Haley Scaman is the top-ranked freshman in the country on floor, scoring a a 9.95 at West Virginia. Scaman, a three-time Junior Olympic national champion from Riverside, Ill., has scored a 9.8 or better on 12 of 14 events this season.
“They’ve had a great impact on our lineup,” senior Brie Olson said. “You have Haley, who is anchoring floor and vault. Being a freshman and anchoring two events is a huge deal.”
“Haley is a little firecracker,” Kindler said. “She is very humble, and I don’t think she knows how good she is, but when she competes she energizes everyone in the room. You don’t expect it from her.”
Fellow Illinois native Keeley Kmieciak has competed in the all-around in every meet for the Sooners, including a career-high all-around score of 39.350 against Denver. She was the all-around champion at last year’s Junior Olympic nationals.
“Keeley is a freshman doing all-around, and is putting up big scores every meet,” Olson said. “You don’t really see freshmen producing on all-around right away on top university teams.”
“Keeley is a powerful athlete and very dynamic,” Kindler said. “She starts beam, which is a position of huge responsibility. She never disappoints in competitions.”
In addition to Scaman and Kmieciak’s contributions, sophomore Lauren Alexander has put up phenomenal scores after taking two years off from competition. Alexander verbally committed to Oklahoma as junior in high school, and promptly tore her ACL. She had surgery and returned to the gym, and a week after she signed her Letter of Intent, Alexander tore the same ligament once again.
When she arrived at Oklahoma in the fall of 2010, she had not spent much time in the gym and lost her passion for it.
“K.J. and I decided together that my heart wasn’t really in it like it used to be,” Alexander said. “The injury scared me so much because it happened twice within a year. We mutually decided I was done.”
“I think the time off took its toll on her, mentally more than physically,” Kindler said. “She felt she had lost passion for the sport. She got a taste of what it was like to be a normal student. Our sport is very demanding.”
Leaving the team in the 2011 preseason, she never competed for the Sooners. But she did keep up with Kindler because her former coach’s daughters attended Bart Connor Gymnastics, where Alexander worked during the school year in Norman.
“When I started working there, I started missing gymnastics a little bit,” Alexander said. “I had one of K.J.’s daughters in my class and saw her at the gym. K.J. asked me if I missed it, and I said I did. She put a little bug in my ear, ‘If you ever want to come back we could always use a good beamer.’ I wasn’t sure if she was serious, but I sent her an e-mail just in case.”
During the summer, Alexander decided to return to the team as a walk-on, concentrating mostly on the balance beam, but also is working on adding bars and floor next season.
“She’s extremely flexible, and she uses it to her advantage [on the beam],” Kindler said. “It makes her stand out. Her movements are very smooth, her transitions are very smooth. It looks like you’re watching her walk on the floor because she’s so comfortable.”
Alexander is a key part of the Sooners beam line-up that ranks No. 1 nationally with a 49.358 average. Spears leads the nation with a 9.9, but Alexander follows closely with a 9.879, which ranks eighth nationally. At the Metroplex Challenge, Alexander scored a 9.975 (including a perfect 10.0 from one judge) to earn the beam title.
“It’s been very exciting for me because I haven’t really competed since my sophomore year in high school,” Alexander said. “My junior year I only competed in two meets before I got hurt and I didn’t compete at all as a senior. I didn’t know how I would respond under pressure, but it was like riding a bike. It all came back. I feel more comfortable every time I go out there.”
Oklahoma enters the weekend with an 11-0 record, and will compete at the Perfect 10 Challenge along with No. 16 Boise State, BYU and Texas Women’s University in Oklahoma City. The Sooners rank in the top seven nationally in all four events — beam (1st), floor exercise and parallel bars (4th), and vault (7th).
“I think our team is ecstatic with the newcomers and how they’ve done, and how they’ve pushed our team forward,” Kindler said.