Dec. 30, 2010
STANFORD, Calif. - It was late summer in the Yosemite Valley when the Stanford women's gymnastics team gathered for its annual retreat, setting aside time to establish goals and develop bonds, and welcome a new class into the family.
Under the stars, before a rollicking campfire and with a hint of fall chill in the air, junior Alyssa Brown presented the five-member freshman class with a book that she had created.
In it were the guidelines, put into the words for the first time, to being a Stanford gymnast: How we warm-up, why we cheer for each other, how to live up to the responsibilities of being a teammate.
For Stanford, a program that has firmly established itself as one of the nation's elite, the significance to the handbook presentation was twofold: it helped create a standard of teamwork that will perpetuate the Cardinal's success. And, secondly, it was an illustration of the ownership in the program that the veterans all carry. For them, the future is now.
For three of the past four years, Stanford has competed for a national championship by advancing to the ultimate competition, the NCAA Super Six finals. Last season, the Cardinal finished fourth, just 0.15 from a school-record second place.
Nine-time first-team All-America Carly Janiga capped off her exceptional career by winning the national title on the uneven bars and finished among the top three in three events, including the all-around.
Janiga has added to a legacy in which Stanford individuals have finished among the top-three 11 times in the past decade, and 13 times overall.
The team graduated four seniors, first-team All-American Blair Ryland among them, but welcomes a freshman class that includes reigning Canadian all-around champion Kristina Vaculik and 2008 Australian Olympian Shona Morgan.
Clearly, Stanford women's gymnastics is cresting as it heads into its season opener Jan. 9 at the Pac-10 Showcase in Los Angeles, but seems far from reaching its apex. Consider this:
• Stanford has made more Super Six appearances than any other Pac-10 school since 2007.
• Stanford is one of five schools to make at least three Super Six appearances in that span.
• Stanford has advanced to eight NCAA championships in 10 years.
• Last year, the Cardinal produced its' best-ever dual-meet season of 19-3, which includes the regular season plus the Pac-10 championships.
"This is a new year and the 2011 team comes in with a different fire and a different approach," Stanford coach Kristen Smyth said. "They're excited to build off our success last season and it comes from our leadership. Starting in January, our goal is to be a mentally tough and consistent team across four events."
The 2010 Cardinal struggled with consistency before putting it all together at the Super Six for its best performance of the season. Part of the reason may have been because of the way the 2009 season ended, with a tentative performance that cost the team a Super Six berth by 0.075.
Stanford coaches worked on building the team's mental strength. Indeed, when Cardinal gymnasts did struggle in 2010, including in the first rotation at the Super Six, they repeatedly picked their teammates up to regain momentum.
The carryover from that finish and the positive energy that transpired remained with Stanford throughout the summer and into fall training. With captains such as fifth-year senior Allyse Ishino and true seniors Shelley Alexander and Danielle Ikoma, the team has mirrored the competitiveness of its leaders.
Ishino is a 2004 U.S. Olympic alternate whose Stanford career got off to a rocky start because of illness and injury. But last season, Ishino emerged as a force in all four events and proved to be durable as well.
"Allyse is a beautiful athlete, I think one of the top all-around gymnasts in the NCAA," Smyth said. "Her work looks effortless. Her dance and presentation make her a crowd favorite in every arena. We are so pleased she is with us for another year."
If there's any doubt about Ishino's "performance" qualities, watch Ishino's floor exercise routine. She crafted it herself by merging gymnastics with her hip-hop dance moves. The routine's unveiling last year at home remains her favorite performance, and typically left fans with a lasting memory of Stanford's meets.
Alexander is the team's top returning all-arounder, with a high score of 39.500, and a two-time 2009 NCAA regional champion, on the vault and balance beam.
"Shelley's personality shines through in her gymnastics," Smyth said. "Her upbeat personality, infectious smile and competitive fire are qualities that make her a real standout."
Ikoma is a second-year captain who is poised for big things. A regular on the beam and vault last year, Ikoma looks to move into two crucial spots - the leadoff positions on vault and floor.
"Dani is hungry, tough and determined," Smyth said. "She's got heart, and the effort she puts into everything is inspiring."
There are many other reasons for optimism, such as the health, versatility, and artistry of junior Nicole Pechanec, who enters the season sharp after representing the Czech Republic in the 2010 world championships.
Brown will provide the poise necessary to lead off the beam lineup, and brings big-score potential to the vault and bars. And sophomore Ashley Morgan provides power and explosiveness to several events, specifically the floor.
"We've got great leadership and experience in the program," Smyth said. "We'll work on squeezing out every tenth so we have a chance to compete for a national title in April."
The following is an event-by-event breakdown of Stanford's team:
Stanford has three returners - Alexander, Ishino, and Ashley Morgan - who have scored above 39.400. Few teams around the country can match that, and there is the possibility of even more such scores because Pechanec and Ikoma have that kind of potential as well.
Stanford has a strong history in the all-around, with Cardinal gymnasts winning four all-around titles in the past seven Pacific-10 Conference championships. Two of those victories came from Tabitha Yim (2006, 2008), who returns to Stanford this season as an assistant coach.
Smyth already has seen Yim's influence.
"She brings positive energy to the gym and great attention to detail," Smyth said. "As a staff, we're pushing the envelope in areas that aren't hard for the girls, but make them stand out, like hitting handstands on bars every single time, landing well and beam choreography. I think you can see some real differences and changes."
This is a strong event for the Cardinal despite the graduation loss of Ryland, who had become a fixture at the leadoff position and was a two-time All-America in the event.
Initially, the lineup looks like Ikoma, sophomore Nicole Dayton, Brown, Ishino, Alexander, and Ashley Morgan. Canadian vault champ Vaculik is expected to join the lineup later in the season, and Pechanec and Australian vault champ Shona Morgan should contend for spots as well.
Brown, Ishino, and Alexander all have collegiate bests of at least 9.9, and Morgan is close at 9.875.
The uneven bars have been a strength for Stanford in the eight years that associate head coach Chris Swircek has overseen the event, with five Pac-10 champions, 12 All-American honors, and one national champion in that span. This should be another exciting year for the Cardinal, which returns five starters from last season.
Ishino, with a best of 9.925, especially shines. She was a 2009 NCAA regional champion.
Pechanec even invented her own move, called a Pechancova, in reference to her Czech surname. She describes it as "a clear hip Geinger."
Traditionally aggressive and mentally tough on this event, Stanford has had seven Pac-10 beam champions and 14 All-Americans in the past 10 years. Balance beam was the event that catapulted Stanford into its fifth Super Six last season.
Alexander, the reigning NCAA regional champion, and five starters from last year's team will provide experience and confidence on this event. Brown (9.875) is expected to set the tone with her calm, confident approach, followed by Ikoma (9.875) and Ishino (9.90).
"I like those three up front together because they are consistent and aggressive," Smyth said. "That builds confidence for the back three to go huge."
This event is the thinnest to start the season, yet remains a showcase event because of the talent the Cardinal can field.
Ashley Morgan, Alexander, Ishino, Ikoma, and Pechanec are five sure things to watch early in the season with Dayton and sophomore Ming Ya Zhou contending for the final spot, while Vaculik, Shona Morgan and freshman Lauren Caldemeyer could move into the lineup as the season progresses.
For Morgan and Pechanec, this is their signature event. Morgan learned a double Arabian, a tumbling pass that will show off her exceptional athletic ability and improve a routine that's already gotten her scores of 9.925 as a freshman.
Pechanec will showcase a new floor routine that, as always, portrays an elegance and grace that make her so unique. Despite competing with an ankle injury last season, Pechanec posted consistently high scores for most of the season in the event.
"She has special qualities," Smyth said. "She's a real artist, somebody people will talk about and will remember."
In essence, the season began under a starlit September horizon. What will unfold remains encased, for now, in the hearts and minds and muscles of the young women who gathered that night.
But, like the stars that filled the mountain sky, the possibilities are endless.
-- David Kiefer, Stanford Athletics