Monday, August 8, 2011

OU Men's Gymnastics Season in Review

Greg Fewell/The Daily
Monday, May 9, 2011

Senior Stephen Legendre performs his floor routine in a meet this season. Legendre won the prestigious Nissen-Emery Award, presented annually to the nation’s top senior gymnast. (Ty Russell/OU Athletic Department)

The Oklahoma men’s gymnastics team has steadily become one of the top programs in the nation. With three NCAA titles already under its belt, the program was already one of the elites in the nation when current head coach Mark Williams took over in 2000. Since then, however, Williams has taken the program to the next level.

In his 12 seasons at Oklahoma, Williams has led the men’s gymnastics program to five national titles — 2002, '03, '05, '06 and '08. On top of that, the men now have four national runner-up finishes. The numbers alone speak volumes about the program. The Sooners are now a gaudy 270-25 under Williams with 17 individual national champions, 103 All-America honors, eight conference titles and three Nissen-Emery Award winners.

The one stat the gymnasts and coaches care the most about, though, is the number of team national titles the program has brought back to Norman. For the select few programs in the nation on the level of Oklahoma gymnastics, bringing home the NCAA title is the goal at the beginning of every season, and this season was no different for the Sooners.

With maybe the best all-around lineup in the country — including Nissen-Emery Award winner senior Stephen Legendre and U.S. Senior National team members sophomores Jacob Dalton and Alex Naddour — the Sooners looked poised to run the table this year on the way to the program’s ninth national title. The team did not just look good on paper, either — when the season started, OU quickly showed the nation what it was capable of. The Sooners opened up competition by easily taking down Air Force and Nebraska, two top-10 opponents, at the Rocky Mountain Open.

Then, after winning the open for the 12th year in a row, Oklahoma went on to beat a string of top-10 opponents, all capped off on Feb. 19 with wins over No. 1 Stanford and No. 2 California in Palo Alto, Calif. The victory gave the Sooners the No. 1 ranking, and from there, the team coasted to victories over Michigan, Penn State and Illinois — three of the nation’s perennial powerhouses — to complete its perfect season. Even after a close disappointing loss to conference foe Nebraska at the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation championships, Williams felt confident his team could bounce back.

“Well, it’s disappointment to go in expecting to win a conference championship, but it wasn’t over in terms of our season,” Williams said. “It ought to get them a little fired up for our training for NCAAs, recognize that we can’t take things for granted, maybe get back to the gym and adjust the training schedule to address the problem that we had.

In the qualifying round of the national championships, it appeared the team had done just that, finishing first with a score of 363.500, the second-highest score of the season for the Sooners. However, the team could not repeat its performance for the final round of the championships. OU’s final-round score of 361.600 fell just short of Stanford’s 363.450, and the Sooners were forced to take home the title of runner-up yet again.

While the second-place finish came as somewhat of a disappointment for the Sooners, the team still realizes what an accomplishment it is to finish so high on the podium.

“We couldn’t fight off Stanford, and they are very deserving of the title,” Williams said. Things also look to be quite bright for the Sooners next season. While the Sooners do lose five seniors, including Legendre and Ian Jackson who both had major contributions to the team, they also return a ridiculous amount of talent to next year’s lineup. In fact, of the five Sooners that earned spots in this year’s individual NCAA championships, three of them were only sophomores. Troy Nitzky joined Naddour and Dalton in this year’s individual finals. Those three will return next year to lead a very strong and very young group of Sooners on what they hope will be a slightly more successful national title run.

While Oklahoma’s national title hopes will have to wait at least one more year, at least three gymnasts from this year’s team have a lot to look forward to this summer. Senior Steven Legendre and sophomores Jacob Dalton and Alex Naddour will all be competing internationally for the U.S. men’s Senior National team. The three will get the chance to get better by taking on some of the top gymnastics teams in the entire world. The fact that so many Sooners are on the U.S. national team is a testament to just how dominant Oklahoma is in the sport of gymnastics. That being said, while the program does lose some amazing seniors from this year’s team, Williams has shown multiple times in his years at OU that the program is very capable of reloading. With his recruiting and the huge wealth of talent returning, the Sooners should continue to compete for the national title not just next year, but for many years to come.

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