Penn State advances to NCAA finals with home-floor advantage
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Top-ranked Penn State will go for a NCAA men's gymnastics team title Saturday night on its home floor.
Stanford and Iowa also advanced Friday night in the second qualifying session. Michigan, Oklahoma and defending champion Illinois moved on from the early session Friday.
Penn State enjoys a distinct advantage this weekend performing in front of its vocal home fans in its cozy campus home of cozy Rec Hall. The program is seeking its 13th national championship.
"It's fun, man. They're a pretty good crowd," senior Felix Aronovich said, leaning back in his chair after leading his team on the vault (15.05 points). "It brings a good atmosphere. It's unique."
The Nittany Lions led all qualifiers in the evening session with 436.9 points, more than one point better than Stanford. The Hawkeyes finished third at 426.55, edging out California after the Hawkeyes scored just enough on their final floor exercise routine in their last rotation.
Iowa coach JD Reive, a former Stanford assistant, flashed a wide grin after sitting down in front of reporters and holding a bottle of water to cool off.
"This has been my goal since I got to Iowa three years ago," Reive said about advancing. "Doing it in that fashion was a little bit stressful, but we did our job [Friday] and that's all I could ask our boys to do."
In the afternoon session, third-ranked Michigan scored 443.850 points, 10 better than No. 2 Oklahoma. Seventh-ranked Illinois was third with 426.900.
Air Force, Nebraska and Minnesota failed to advance from the afternoon session.
The NCAA is using a five-up, five-count format instead of the six-up, four-count used in past championship events. Five gymnasts per team compete in each of the six events and all scores count. Most of the coaches from the qualifying teams agreed that the format either helped bring interest to the sport or increased competitiveness.
"The level of performance is better and it makes all the routines that are on the floor meaningful," Oklahoma coach Mark Williams said. "I think it leaves some doubt even as you go into the last event who will be the champion."
Michigan coach Kurt Golder listed one drawback to the format.
"I like that everything counts," Golder said. "What I don't like about it is a guy who competes really hard and could maybe be an All-American, but because his team is so good he doesn't get an opportunity to compete. That five-up, five-count denies opportunities."
Penn State coach Randy Jepson agreed. "There are pluses and minuses," he said. "It is unfortunate for those guys who didn't get a chance to go."
Illinois performed poorly on pommel horse early in the round with a 66.2, but scored well in the five other events. Minnesota earned only 65.850 on pommel horse. Illinois, the defending NCAA champion, finished third ahead of Minnesota by 2.2 points.
"I was nervous," coach Justin Spring said. "I expect my team to go out and hit. Pommel horse was unexpected. I'm relieved but I'm not surprised that we're here. That's a different emotion."
Michigan lost to Penn State and Oklahoma in regular-season dual meets, but earned a favorite's role among competing coaches when it outscored Penn State in the Big Ten championships.
"We hit about 90 percent, we had two mistakes, and we'll try to eliminate those tomorrow," Michigan's Golder said. "We haven't been consistent all year; Big Tens was our highest hit percentage this year."
One reason the Wolverines hit was Olympian Sam Mikulak.
A 2011 NCAA all-around champion who won high bar champ and was all-around runner-up in 2012, Mikulak posted scores of 15.1 on floor exercise, 14.850 on pommel horse, 14.9 on vault, 15.5 on parallel bars and 15.550 on high bar.
"I think [Friday] went very well," Mikulak said. "Our mindset for the whole team is to go in, be calm, not get too rowdy, make sure that we're saving ourselves for tomorrow. I think everyone was like, hey, let's go in like this was a practice day at the gym and do what we do in the gym."
Still, Penn State may be tough to beat when factoring in the emotion of performing on its home floor.
"We're pleased to be able to advance. That was the goal for [Friday]," Jepson said. "We will recover and come to do battle tomorrow."