March 18, 2011
LOS ANGELES - As the Stanford women's gymnastics team prepared for Saturday's Pacific-10 Conference Championships at UCLA's Pauley Pavilion, coach Kristen Smyth sat down with gostanford.com and talked about some of the issues of the moment -- finals week and the team's depth, potential, and breakout performers.
Here is her interview:
Q: What is the biggest challenge of having a big meet after a two-week break from organized practice?
A: This is our big push, both from the gymnastics and conditioning side of things, and school. The girls have their final exams. We'll be done on Thursday and then we jump on a bus Friday and compete on Saturday. It's also our big final push for conditioning and then we taper after Pac-10s. It's a meet where we train through. That doesn't mean we're not looking for a great performance. We had a great intrasquad Sunday, and the team looked fantastic.
Allyse Ishino will be back on two events. She'll be doing bars and beam. She probably could do more, but we're not pushing that.
It's going to be an amazing competition. Washington's stronger than they've been for a long time. We lost to Oregon State recently, so we know they're formidable. And UCLA is UCLA. They're always going to be great in the postseason, no matter how they've done all year.
We're excited about the competition. It'll be great preparation for the next few weeks.
Q: How much does your tough schedule prepare you for regionals and beyond?
A: Every meet we use as an opportunity to improve our confidence as well as making some adds. We're looking to get a little bit better, and to peak at the end of the year, which is what we're always trying to do. We're looking to do better than we've done at Pac-10s, and keep building, keep growing, and put a great team out on the floor.
I feel like this team has continued to impress all of us with their heart, their hunger, their determination, and their willingness to fight, especially in situations and routines when faced with adversity. They rise to the occasion. It stems from our amazing leadership, especially our senior class and our other captain, Alyssa Brown. Those kids have battled so much in their careers. They're just a tough, hungry, gritty group, and so enjoyable to coach.
Q: Does the team have a certain amount of confidence in knowing that they have responded under pressure?
A: Definitely. I think they've proven it. We've been in so many situations this year. Starting off with the Pac-10 Showcase where we bussed down, we were awakened by a 4 a.m. fire drill, and then we head to the meet and kids hit 23 of 23 routines, with the byes and a big-pressure meet. And then going into Utah at Utah, that hadn't lost in four years at home, in front of 10,000 people, and go one at a time. We go to beam with the meet tied, and with a fall in the middle of the lineup, and watching those kids go up there with confidence and trust in their work and each other. They've got each other's backs no matter what. That meet was a major confidence booster for the team.
All of the road trips we picked, we identified for our main focal points this year, to have certain things we wanted to accomplish: to have big meets on the road, to become road warriors, to handle our work in tough environments. I think they've done that time and time again.
We went to the Midwest and had a back to back weekend and were able to perform better the second day, which is not easy to do with a very lean team. It's not like we have a lot of depth that we can work in and out of lineups. To go in the second day, at Michigan, which is a tough place to get a win, and being behind the whole meet until the last event. And to see them never backing down, never giving up, and finishing the way they did there ...
Q: You mentioned Allyse. Where is she at right now from a health perspective?
A: She feels good. Ankle feels pretty good. We could probably push her a little bit faster. She probably wants to push a little bit faster. But for us, it's more important to have her 100 percent at the end of the year than to be pushing her and having her come up sore and have a couple of days where she can't train.
I'd like for her to be able to improve daily without having any setbacks. That's what we're going to do for this weekend, bars and beam. Maybe at regionals we'll have her on one more event -- the floor or vault, we'll see. Then, by nationals definitely, four strong.
Just by having her in a couple of places, it lifts the whole team's spirits. It also raises our level. She's just stunning. I think she was ranked third on bars until she was hurt. So, now she's not on RQS and doesn't have a ranking anymore, but those two areas are important because we start the meet there - bars and beam. We want to start off strong, and build from there.
Q: How will the Pac-10 rotation order affect your team?
A: It's always hard to finish on a bye, only because you're just sitting there, so there's nothing you can do. I always like finishing on an event because you have some control, not really, but some.
We're a great bar team, and a great beam team. So, it's nice to be able to start there and set the tone for the meet. We get to be the first ones the judges get to see, and I think we do great work. Sometimes it's better to be in a rhythm (by competing on the first two rotations) before you have that bye. It'll be just like we've been doing all year, going from bars straight to beam. Then, we'll get a bye before floor, and have a chance to get the energy back up, and get a little bit of rest there.
Q: At different times, different events have seemed to be the team's strongest, depending on the meet.
A: Vault's coming along. We mentioned the other day that we're nine deep on vault, which is more than we have on any other event.
Q: How is your depth, considering that you have six gymnasts who have not competed the entire season because of injuries - five of whom arrived at Stanford too injured to compete?
A: This team has been faced with quite a bit of adversity throughout the year. We lost Jenny Peter early on, a lot of our freshmen came in with injuries. We were lean to begin with, and if you look to see who we're getting contributions from, it's eight to nine kids. Those eight or nine kids are doing an incredible job. Again, it takes an awful lot to be successful, especially when you have few numbers, and I think that the team has been extremely committed to their goals - all of them, even if they're not competing. They've all filled their roles really well. They've made great choices. They're strong, they're fit, they're in great shape. This is one of the most fit teams we've ever had.
They've done a great job of handling all of their individual roles and contributed in any way they can, which is nice to see. But in terms of depth on the events, we're a little bit leaner than we'd like to be, but it's what it is. Again, the team has really risen up and embraced the fact that they've got to be smart, be strong, be confident, and able to handle their work. They've been doing that.
Shelley Alexander has been amazing. She's been a top all-around performer every weekend.
On vault, with Peach (Nicole Pechanec) stepping in at Cal was incredible (with a 9.9 on her first collegiate vault). She is amazing. She just worked herself right into the vault lineup. A kid that had potential there, but we didn't quite know what kind of potential until she was put in that situation. She wasn't slated to go. And, wow, she just rose. And her reaction and enthusiasm. She just gets so excited about everything. It just spills over to the team. That was wonderful to see.
Shona (Morgan) should be ready this weekend to do vault. She has a different vault -- a unique vault that I think is going to help us at nationals. Most of our kids do the layout Yurchenko full. This one offers some variety. So, hopefully, she'll be able to do that this weekend. This is the time to put it out there if we're going to use it - see how it scores and see how she does. So, vault is looking great.
Bars, without Weedge (Ishino) in the lineup, I think the person who can step in and replace her is Ashley Morgan. She did a nice job for us at Cal. She also has an upgraded dismount that we're going to try this weekend - a double layout. If she does that, I think she can score a 9.9, which would be huge. And when Weedge gets back in, there's another 9.9 in the lineup.
Again, everybody's still getting better, everybody's still making those improvements. We're still looking to make adds and peak at the end of the year, which is exciting. It's not like we're just trying to hold them together.
Q: It seems you have two breakout performers this year. Ashley Morgan has proven herself on a national level and Alyssa Brown has been extremely consistent. It seems she's taken another step this year.
A: Absolutely. Ashley Morgan has star quality. You watch her and she's explosive and dynamic and exciting to watch. And she's shown that throughout her short career here at Stanford, but now she's really starting to embrace that. Her confidence has grown and I'm sure we'll see her being a top all-arounder next year.
Alyssa Brown is just so steady, so dependable. I think our beam team is as strong as it is because of her leadership. That role, first person up, is such an important position. She has grown into that beautifully and likes that position, and does it in such a way that builds everybody else's confidence.
Q: She seems to fill the role that (two-time All-America) Blair Ryland filled in the vault in recent years.
A: We have had some great starters in the past - Kendall Beck when she was here, Lauren Elmore. When you have a great starter, the rest of the team feeds off of that. She's confident, she's calm, she's steady. She's done an incredible job of leading the beam team. Obviously, bars and vault seem effortless for her. Every weekend is the same. Every weekend you can pretty much dial in a 9.9 on both events. Very consistent.
There are so many great kids. We've got Shelley Alexander and Allyse Ishino, two top all-arounders. Dani Ikoma has emerged as a great all-arounder. We've got Peach now, who can do the all-around, Ashley can do the all-around, and so could Kristina Vaculik. That's six kids - and great all-arounders. And Nicole Dayton has stepped up on three events. We could slip her in where we need to. Shona Morgan's coming around, we could slip her in where we need to, and, obviously, Brownie on three events.
While we don't have a lot of depth depth, we have quality depth to work with. Anybody can step in and get a 9.9, I believe, on any event. Anyone we put out there is capable. And I don't think we've ever been in that position. We've always had that one kid who is going to get a 9.7 and we put her in because she's going to hit. But I think as far as quality depth, this is the best we've had.
And again, it's a commitment to their work ethic, their commitment to each other, their goals.
Q: The girls say the same thing -- that they believe whoever is up there is going to get the job done.
A: Yes. I think we're excited about the postseason. Pac-10 always brings out extra excitement in them, partly because they've just finished finals. They're excited and they don't have to worry about anything else. It's always kind of a nice transition.
Q: The team practiced on Sunday, but can't meet again until ...
A: Until we leave on the bus on Friday. We'll drive the bus down and see how we're feeling. Usually on Friday we do very little. We get on the equipment and do a dance-through on floor, a landing drill on vault, and some basics on bars and beam.
Q: It seems as if your best meet is ahead of you.
A: We haven't scored 197 yet, but basically, the important thing is head to head. We've been able to stand toe to toe with UCLA, Oregon State, Michigan, these top teams. We haven't seen the SEC teams, but I think we can stand toe to toe with them. Again, the teams that handle their routines under pressure and hit 24 out of 24 routines will have a chance to win.
I feel great even though we haven't gotten that 197, but our numbers are so consistent and I like the fact that we've been able to handle adversity and be put into really tough situations and rise to the occasion. It makes me feel excited and look forward to what's ahead of us.
We're making adds, we're still getting better. In the beginning of the year, too, and in midseason, we don't really talk about landings. At Cal, we gave up over a point in landings. Right there, stuck landings. That would have been a 197.5. So, it's there for us. When we start to put on the finishing touches, and as we're tapering and as we're focusing on those tiny little things and less numbers and more detail, we're going to get that. So, again, I really feel like there's a lot more in there for us.
-- David Kiefer, Stanford Athletics