April 7, 2012
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Stanford coach Kristen Smyth will tell you that the most pressure-packed meet of the season is the NCAA regionals. It is this meet which determines the NCAA Championships field, and which offers the most postseason "what ifs?" should a team fail to advance.
For Stanford, the NCAA Champaign Regional on Saturday at University of Illinois' Assembly Hall became the latest rite of passage for a team that continues to offer glimpses of possibilities for the NCAA Championships.
Stanford indeed qualified, finishing second in the six-team field to advance to the NCAA's for the fifth time in six years and the 12th time overall.
Stanford (196.675 points) edged host Illinois (195.725) for the final qualifying spot, behind Oklahoma (197.025). The Cardinal and Sooners advance to nationals, April 20-22 in Duluth, Ga.
Three Cardinal individual champions were crowned: senior Alyssa Brown on vault (9.900), senior Nicole Pechanec on the uneven bars (9.925), and sophomore Amanda Spinner, who finished in a four-way tie on the balance beam (9.900). The titles were the first of any kind on the collegiate level for each.
The Cardinal had a pair of falls, but did not let those mishaps unnerve them. That was evident in the final rotation when Stanford could not afford another in the balance beam lineup, with an NCAA berth in the balance.
Freshman Ivana Hong, in the No. 3 spot, then performed a confident and clutch routine that scored a 9.800 and got the Cardinal back on track. To have it in an event that has been strong, but sometimes problematic, proved to symbolize the determination of the team.
"They covered each other well," Stanford coach Smyth said. "That was one of the goals for this weekend - cover for each other."
Hong's performance was followed by a 9.850 by Shona Morgan, Spinner's winner, and a 9.825 by Brown in the anchor position with so much at stake.
Even before that, Stanford had to exorcise its' share of demons. At the Pac-12 Championships two weeks earlier, Stanford led the meet going into the final rotation, but suffered two falls on the bars to fall all the way to fourth.
The bars this time came after a bye and on the team's third rotation. With obvious motivation, the Cardinal scored its highest team mark of the day (49.400) with Pechanec highlighting performances that also included 9.90's by Brown and Samantha Shapiro.
Brown was competing on the apparatus for only the second time all season because of an off-season shoulder injury, and tied her collegiate career best. And the freshman Shapiro's was a collegiate career best.
"The bar team was determined to show what they're capable of doing," Smyth said.
Rebecca Wing, another freshman, played a key role on both the bars and the beam, leading off the lineups in each and setting a benchmark for her teammates with a 9.825 on the bars and 9.875 on the beam.
"It was truly one of those magical moments," Smyth said of the momentum gathered from Wing's bars performance. "We got better and better with each athlete that went, all with energy and confidence that carried all the way through."
As for Brown, who had a pair of 9.9's and a 9.825 on beam as she continued her comeback in dramatic fashion, she was "unbelievable." Smyth said. "Absolutely incredible. She's really hitting her stride right now."
The positive team performance was in contrast to last year's, when highly-ranked Stanford struggled to fourth place in its region amid a number of mistakes.
"It was very emotional," Smyth said. "There were a lot of tears - of joy this time.
"We have 13 girls on this team, and they have become a tight-knit group. The five freshmen came in and contributed immediately, and our senior leadership has been exceptional. They wanted to make sure they were the last team standing.
"I'm so proud and happy for this team. Because they earned it."
Stanford is among 12 teams to advance out of six regionals. The teams will be split into two preliminary sessions on April 20. The top three in each advance to the Super Six finals on April 21 to decide the national champion.
The other NCAA qualifiers, from each region, were: Georgia, Oregon State (Auburn Regional); UCLA, Arkansas (Fayetteville); Florida, Ohio State (Raleigh); Utah, Nebraska (Salt Lake City); and Alabama, LSU (Seattle).
For those scoring at home, that's five spots for teams from the Southeastern Conference, four from the Pac-12, two from the Big Ten and one from the Big 12.
Final team scores:
Winners and Stanford scores:
Balance Beam: 1 (tie), Amanda Spinner (Stanford), Alina Weinstein (Illinois), Taylor Westrick (Southeast Missouri State), Megan Ferguson (Oklahoma), each 9.900. Stanford: Rebecca Wing 9.875, Shona Morgan 9.850, Alyssa Brown 9.825, Ivana Hong 9.800, Nicole Pechanec 9.175.
All-Around: 1, Alina Weinstein (Illinois) 39.450. Stanford: Nicole Pechanec 38.625.
Record: Stanford 18-7.