April 3, 2012
STANFORD, Calif. - For a program that has advanced to six consecutive NCAA Championship finals, with two titles in that span, 2012 seemed the logical year that Stanford's men's gymnastics program would recede from title consideration to rebuild for another extended championship run. Unbeknownst to everyone, the Cardinal had different plans.
As the regular season draws to a close, the Cardinal finds itself ranked third in the country and a player in the national championship conversation. Stanford head coach Thom Glielmi wasn't sure how his team would respond after losing seven to graduation, including five All-Americans from last year's championship team.
"It's a little surprising that we are so high in the national rankings," said Glielmi about the performance of his young team. "What we've been doing this year is getting the guys comfortable a little earlier so we could focus on their execution scores. With guys who are a little less experienced, the goal is for them to go out there and hit their sets and put the pressure on the other teams because those teams know we're going to hit."
The Cardinal joins No. 1 Oklahoma as the only teams in the country to be in the top-four in all six events this season. Stanford's consistency has allowed Glielmi the luxury of preparing his team to increase the difficulty of some routines and focus on execution without worrying about any glaring weaknesses. The potential to add more difficult elements to some routines is an option, but at this point of the season and with the potential to compete three days in a row at the NCAA Championships, the coaches are focusing on improving the team's endurance and ensuring everyone is peaking at the same time.
"I think all the guys have had pretty good seasons," Glielmi said. "There are guys who have yet to put together all their events in one competition, but they've had flashes of brilliance in each event in various meets. We want the entire team to put it together at the same time and that's when we'll have our best competition."
Peak performance is essential to postseason success in any sport and with the Cardinal posting its' top four season scores in the past four competitions, the expectation is that the athletes will put together the best routines of the season when it counts.
"There's room to improve some routines and the guys are getting more comfortable," said Glielmi. "I expect to count only hit routines at conference and the routines with the highest difficulty and best execution at NCAA's, and that's how we're going to put pressure on Oklahoma, Penn State and Illinois."
Fielding an 11-man roster this season in a sport that routinely sees 18-man squads has been a challenge for the Cardinal. After a rigorous regular season schedule, the disadvantage of being short-handed has actually helped alleviate some of the uncertainty surrounding postseason lineup selection.
"A lot of teams are still trying to put together their lineups and even their routines," Glielmi said. "It's been a bit of a disadvantage that we only have 11 guys competing, but in some ways it's an advantage because everyone knows their job and we have settled on our lineups and can focus on bettering our execution scores."
While Glielmi has his team in position to succeed, the Cardinal must overcome the disadvantage of being one of the only schools on the quarter system and the academic rigors that accompany that.
"There are a few weeks towards the end of the season that we can't compete because of Dead Week and finals week," he said. "We have to make sure the guys are well trained and aren't going to lose too much during finals because this time of year can be very tough on the guys academically. They're students before they're athletes and it's something we just work with."
As successful as the program has been in the past decade, the lack of growth in the sport is an issue that plagues men's gymnastics. Accessibility to casual fans has declined in recent years, in part due to the adoption of a new scoring system that doesn't have the intuitive concept of a perfect 10.
"Men's NCAA gymnastics programs need to look at if we want to follow the leadership of the Federation of International Gymnastics," said Glielmi. "I think they're leading us down the path of losing more interest and participation in the sport.
"They haven't grown the sport, and have concocted rules that lack logic and make it extremely difficult for athletes to maintain a career. They dropped the 10.0, which was a mainstay of the sport and something that people understood. Now, when people see a great routine and the score goes up, they have no idea what the score means.
Personally, I think the USA should be leading, and if that means dropping the FIG altogether, then so be it."
While the changes to the scoring system don't agree with Glielmi's desire to see the sport grow, it's something that won't interfere with this team's quest for a spot atop the podium at NCAA Championships and its' third national title in the past seven years. That they've surprised a lot of people to get to this point is a reflection on the team's desire to carry on the winning tradition that defines Stanford men's gymnastics.