Jan. 14, 2012
STANFORD, Calif. - There are plenty of reasons to be excited about the future of the Stanford women's gymnastics program, and it starts with this year's outstanding five-member freshman class.
But that shouldn't detract from the potential of the present.
Stanford enters the 2012 season, which begins Sunday with the NorCal Quad Meet at Burnham Pavilion at 2 p.m., ranked No. 8 in the nation. The Cardinal is coming off a 20-4 regular-season, opening with a school-record 15 consecutive victories.
The Cardinal went 6-2 against teams that advanced to the NCAA Super Six final, including handing Utah its first home loss in four years and Michigan its first in three. The Cardinal also displayed a measure of perseverance, three times rallying from behind or a tie in the final rotation to win.
But a season in which six gymnasts were sidelined for the season with injuries put added responsibilities on the remaining nine, who, by the end of the year, were tired. The Cardinal finished fourth in the Pac-10 and fourth in the NCAA Ann Arbor Regional, finishing one place from a fifth consecutive NCAA Championships berth.
Stanford lost three starters to graduation, including past regional champions Shelley Alexander and Allyse Ishino. But the Cardinal also has six letterwinners returning, including all-conference performers Alyssa Brown, Ashley Morgan, and Nicole Pechanec.
Also encouraging is that seven gymnasts should make their collegiate debut - the freshman class and two sophomores who missed last season. In addition, senior Jenny Peter, who helped boost Stanford to fourth place with her performance on the uneven bars at the 2010 Super Six, also returns after missing 2011.
Because Brown, highly-touted freshmen Ivana Hong and Samantha Shapiro, and last year's sidelined sophomores Lucy Meyer and Amanda Spinner, are still recovering from injuries, Stanford expects to improve each week as they return to action and take on more events.
"I anticipate we'll be getting healthy, and adding athletes and difficulty as we go," said Stanford coach Kristen Smyth, now in her 11th season. "We're going to build and get better as the year goes on. I wouldn't underestimate this group."
At the outset at least, Stanford may be highlighted by three individuals - Morgan, Pechanec, and freshman Rebecca Wing.
Morgan, a junior from Danville, Calif., had a breakout sophomore season. She tied for the Pac-10 floor exercise title and never scored lower than 9.875 in that event, hitting 9.9's in all but one meet, and 9.925 or above six times. She did not earn All-America recognition because she did not qualify as an individual to the NCAA's, but still finished with the highest average floor score in the country (9.914). She also had the team's highest vault score (9.925).
In preparing for this season, Morgan worked closely with associate head coach Chris Swircek to learn a double layout off the uneven bars, vastly improving her weakest event.
"It could conceivably match up with floor," Smyth said. "It's that good. On four events, she's one of the best in the country. She looks phenomenal."
Pechanec, a senior and a veteran international competitor for the Czech Republic, has been one of the steadiest gymnasts on the team, scoring 9.9's in all four events and finally unleashing the release move on bars that she invented, "The Pechancova" in a collegiate meet.
Though she's been a regular on floor, with a collegiate best of 9.950, Pechanec will concentrate on other events for most of the year - she'll be the team's anchor on bars -- to prevent wear and tear.
Asked what makes Pechanec so special, Smyth listed, "her charisma, her lines, her artistry. She's looking beautiful on three events right now. We're trying to manage her body and make sure by the end of the year, she's doing the all-around and really soaring."
Wing and Pauline Hanset are the freshmen who will be heavily counted on immediately out of a star-studded five-member class.
Wing, a 2008 British Olympian, already has shown herself to be "extremely poised and confident," Smyth said, and has earned the leadoff spot on bars and the balance beam.
"I'm really excited about Becky. In this environment, at the college level, she's going to be a real standout performer. She's clean, she's artistic, she's beautiful, and she's going to definitely score well, and she loves to perform. She's going to offer the program so much, not only this year, but in the future."
Hanset provides a source of power, especially on floor, and has a unique vault, with a pike front half.
"She's a healthy, strong, very athletic gymnast," Smyth said. "And her confidence is growing."
Hong, a world championship bronze medalist on beam in 2009 and two-time U.S. national champion, is slowed by an ankle injury, but could make her first appearance as soon as Jan. 27 at Oregon State, on vault and beam.
Shapiro, a former U.S. senior national teamer and three-time junior national champion, arrived at Stanford with a foot injury and the coaching staff has been cautious. However, she could compete on bars at the Jan. 22 home meet against Washington, with vault and floor coming later.
"I wouldn't underestimate this group."
Another freshman, Alex Archer, is close to cracking the bars lineup and also should add depth to the vault and floor.
Alyssa Brown, a senior and last year's team MVP, suffered an off-season shoulder injury, which has caused a complete overhaul of her beam routine. Brown was an all-conference first-team choice on beam last season and is the anchor to the beam lineup.
The new routine doesn't require her to put her hands down on the beam, but actually is more difficult than her previous one.
"She's progressing better than we had expected and will be able to compete beam this weekend," Smyth said. "I like this beam routine better because it's unique and showcases her strengths."
Brown hopes to branch out to the vault, and perhaps bars, by the end of the season.
Brown and Pechanec are joined as captains by Amanda Spinner, a sophomore who hasn't competed for 2 ½ years because of knee injuries and multiple surgeries, but has gained the respect of her teammates, who voted her to the position.
"She's inspiring in her work ethic and approach," Smyth said. "Amanda loves the sport, she's worked hard and we look forward to her debut on beam this season."
Like Spinner, Meyer is slated for a return, though much sooner. A powerful gymnast, Meyer could make her debut Sunday on vault. If not then, it should be soon, and perhaps later on beam.
A junior, Nicole Dayton, solidified her spot in the lineup in the vault last year, and often on the floor. This season, her responsibilities expand to vault anchor, floor leadoff, and bars regular.
"She has worked tirelessly to clean up her lines and to really improve her dismount, and has definitely earned her place on the bar team," Smyth said. "On floor, she sets the tone with her tumbling and strong performance ability."
Like Wing, sophomore Shona Morgan competes with the calmness that befits her title as an Olympian, having competed for Australia in the 2008 Beijing Games.
A knee injury limited her to mostly beam last year, but she should expand to three events with the addition of floor and bars, and could go all-around by the end of the season.
"Beam is really her signature event," Smyth said. "She is as steady and aggressive as you can get. She's got beautiful skill selection and a lot of confidence."
The Cardinal also welcomes the return of Peter for the opening meet after a knee injury last year. A senior who has been granted a fifth year next season, Peter should be in the bars lineup immediately and later in the season should show off her explosive floor routine.
With the addition of Utah, the new Pac-12 now owns as many national titles (15) as teams from the Southeastern Conference. The Cardinal was chosen by conference coaches to finish fourth, which Smyth figures is about right - for now.
"We have a young team and I'm excited to watch them grow this season," Smyth said. "We have some beautiful athletes and when everyone is contributing in March and April I know we'll be a force."
-- David Kiefer, Stanford Athletics