Jan. 4, 2010
STANFORD, Calif. - It didn't seem like it at the time, but watching the NCAA Super Six team finals from the stands last spring may have been the best thing to happen to the 2010 Stanford women's gymnastics team.
The view from the upper tier of University of Nebraska's Bob Devaney Sports Center was humbling considering Stanford had missed qualifying by 0.075 of a point at the NCAA team preliminaries the day before.
But the Cardinal left Lincoln, Neb., that weekend with a purpose, focused on returning to its rightful place in the Super Six. Over the previous seven years Stanford had reached the Super Six four times and twice finished among the top three.
"This team has a fire underneath," coach Kristen Smyth said. "They're hungry for success. It was good for them to sit in the stands and watch. They really want to be one of those teams that competes on the last day of the year."
That desire was evident when the Cardinal reported for fall practice in outstanding shape, perhaps the best in Smyth's nine seasons at Stanford. That allowed the team to begin adding gymnastics earlier than usual.
Stanford has 11 returning letterwinners and eight starters - including defending Pacific-10 Conference all-around champion Carly Janiga - from last year's team. That squad finished No. 8 in the country and achieved its eighth NCAA top-10 finish in 11 years. Stanford indeed seems poised to shock those who may have counted the Cardinal out.
Though the 2009 season ended too soon, it had its share of highlights: Stanford (17-4) was ranked No. 3 in the nation for four consecutive weeks, produced three consecutive scores of more than 197 points for the first time in five years, and began the season at 12-0 for the best start in school history.
The Cardinal won four Pac-10 individual titles, three NCAA South Central Regional crowns and placed 10 on the Scholastic All-America team. Janiga, the NCAA uneven bars runner-up, and Nicole Ourada were All-Americans, marking the 11th consecutive season Stanford produced multiple All-America honors. Since Smyth arrived in 2002, the team has had 60 All-America honors.
But while there was much to be proud of, the Cardinal suffered disappointment at the NCAA Team Preliminaries, lost the lead on the final rotation at the Pac-10 Championships to fall to third, and was a frustrating second at NCAA South Central Regional.
"To come up short in those three arenas was tough and it is something that's motivating us this year," Smyth said. "We have made it a focus of ours to finish meets strong."
If there's a theme for 2010, it's turning frustration into determination. During the fall, Smyth and her staff instituted weekly "Gamedays" to simulate the pressure of a meet environment. The team dressed for competition, underwent pre-meet routines and competed in meet-like rotations.
Normally, Gamedays are saved for in-season, but by creating meet tension - which includes teammates competing against each other for lineup spots - Stanford hopes the nerves of championship meets will become close to second nature.
Smyth was pleased with the results. Not only did the intra-squad competitions push each gymnast to compete at a higher level, but it cultivated the leadership skills of a team that had to overcome the graduation losses of Kelly Fee, Heather Purnell and Ourada, who made up a strong class of leaders.
Smyth has discovered that "more athletes are stepping up, willing to and wanting to push themselves to be leaders on this team," she said. "It has been refreshing to see new leaders emerge in the program. I have been most impressed with my three captains, Carly, Allyse, and Shelley, who have always been great leaders by example, but now have stepped up as emotional leaders as well."
Ishino, a 2004 U.S. Olympic alternate, has been hampered by health issues, but capped last season with the regional bars title and enters her senior year in excellent condition, with a chance to pull off some surprises.
After limited action as a freshman, Alexander blossomed as a strong all-around performer with two All-Pac-10 first-team honors. With her work ethic and passion for the sport, even more is expected in her junior year.
The wild cards could be a freshman class that includes Ashley Morgan, an explosive gymnast who could make an immediate impact on vault, beam and floor, and a sophomore class led by Nicole Pechanec, an international competitor with unmatched artistry.
Blended together, "This team has great potential," Smyth said. "They're underdogs who are coming back with something to prove."
The following is an event-by-event breakdown of Stanford's team:
Stanford is in good hands with Janiga, who captured both the conference and regional all-around titles last season. With the graduation of Georgia's Courtney Kupets, the battle for the NCAA all-around title should be wide open, and Janiga, with a best of 39.575, is expected to be among the contenders.
Janiga became Stanford's fourth conference all-around champion in the past six years and does not have a weak event.
Allyse Ishino should also be one of the top all-around competitors this season. "She is strong and healthy and ready to lead our team on all four events," Smyth said.
Alexander earned collegiate career bests across the board last season, and scored an all-around victory in the duel with Cal. All this came after competing exclusively on the vault as a freshman.
"Shelley is one of those gymnasts that came in under the radar and will end up being one of our very best of all time," Smyth said. "Even if she doesn't have the accolades on the wall, she has more heart and determination than I've ever seen. She's willing to do anything it takes, and everything it takes, to be great."
Danielle Ikoma, a junior who shared Stanford's 2009 Most Improved Award with Alexander, could compete in her first collegiate all-around after competing as a three-event starter last year.
This event should be one of Stanford's strongest and deepest, with five returning starters, including four-year starter Blair Ryland, a 2007 All-American. Ryland has been a fixture in the leadoff spot and will continue in that role, providing the Cardinal with consistency and dependability in a key spot.
Alexander, Janiga, Ikoma and Ishino will continue to be regulars, but sophomore Alyssa Brown, last year's strongest vaulter, will be brought along slowly after injuring her knee during warmups at Pac-10s.
The bars lineup does not have great depth, but does have great quality. This event has been a perennial strength for the Cardinal, with five individual regional titles in the past six years, not to mention a pair of 2009 All-American honors.
Considered together, the group of Janiga, Ishino, Brown and Pechanec "are a powerful force and could be some of the top bar performers in the country," Smyth said.
Alexander should take the fifth spot, with the sixth up for grabs among Ikoma, Peter, Dayton and sophomore Catherine Nguyen, who spent much of the fall recovering from a summer knee injury.
The team's highest event score in 2009 (a 49.40 against Oregon State and UC Davis) came in this event, which has been a program strength. The beam team will rely heavily upon four returning starters - Alexander, Ikoma, Ishino and Janiga, the two-time defending Pac-10 beam champion.
Pechanec, who scored a 9.9 in her only beam routine last season, and Morgan should step right in, with Nguyen competing for a spot as well. And Brown, a former beam leadoff for the Canadian national team, is capable of bringing a steely presence to the lineup.
No other event speaks to Stanford's artistry and personality better than this one.
Alexander is simply "a great performer," Smyth said. "You can't help but fall in love with her when she steps on the floor. Her smile is contagious."
Pechanec is "outstanding in the way she can pull in the audience," Smyth said. "She's gorgeous, has beautiful lines, and her skill selection is unique. I think she could be one of our top artists of all time, challenging some of the best floor performers that have come through the program."
Tenaya West offers incredible athleticism and sky high tumbling, and Morgan adds a routine that won her a Junior Olympic national title.
But the highlight on this event could come from Ishino, who has yet to compete on floor in her collegiate career. Ishino's dancing is the envy of her teammates and she has choreographed her own floor routine this season that showcases her incredible ability.
Besides being talented, the Cardinal should be entertaining.
"Because our gymnasts are so different, you're not seeing the same skill selection or the same type of athlete," Smyth said. "Some gymnasts are more elegant and flexible, and some are more dynamic and powerful. I think it makes a nice combination. And their personalities show through in their work, which will make for an enjoyable experience for the fans."