Nov. 28, 2001
STANFORD, Calif. - Even though this season's women's gymnastics team has a slightly different makeup than that of last year, there are plenty of new additions that should make the Cardinal an exciting squad to watch in 2002.
Stanford will look to continue its recent success, as it attempts to repeat as Pac-10 champions and improve on last season's eighth-place finish at the NCAA Championships. Despite the loss of two-time All-American performer Jen Exaltacion to graduation and the resignation of head coach Mark Cook, who left after season's end to take the head position at Arkansas, the Cardinal is optimistic about what could be a breakthrough season for one of the country's emerging programs.
Leading the charge for Stanford this season will be new head coach Kristen Smyth. Smyth comes to The Farm after spending the last five seasons at Arizona State, where she served as the associate head coach during the 2000 season. Smyth, who was named the 1998 Regional Assistant Coach of the Year, hopes to instill an upbeat attitude and strong work ethic among this year's team.
"When we get to the end of the year, I don't want any regrets," stated Smyth. "I want my team to know that when they stepped out on the floor that they were the hardest working girls in the country and they've earned every bit of success they get."
Last year's Cardinal team enjoyed its fair share of triumphs, finishing 4-1 in Pac-10 competition and scoring a school-record 197.850 at Pac-10 Championships to claim its second conference title in four seasons. Stanford won its final seven dual meets after an opening-season loss to eventual national champion UCLA. They came in eighth at the NCAA Championships in Athens, Ga., recording a final score of 195.400. The Cardinal advanced to that point by claiming second place status at the NCAA Regionals in Ann Arbor, Mich., garnering a 196.725 score.
"I think it makes a big difference in experience having a team that competed at Nationals the year before," Smyth explained. "These girls now have the understanding of how to get there and the recognition of what it takes to move forward and qualify for the Super Six."
In addition to the many returning gymnasts, Smyth cites Stanford's amount of depth and team chemistry as strengths for this season's club.
"We have an incredibly talented team with the potential to have a lot of depth in all four events. If we do a good job of training our athletes, we will make sure we are at least eight deep in all events with the potential to score a 9.8 or better. These athletes are extremely hard workers and self-motivated."
Despite eight of the 14 gymnasts on this year's roster being underclassmen, Smyth has been impressed with the team attitude exemplified during early season workouts.
"Chemistry is the most important quality of a gymnastics team. It's crucial to stay united and be accountable to each other," said Smyth. "From what I've seen of the team so far, they are very close and supportive of each other. What we practice in the gym everyday is also increasing that team unity, camaraderie and chemistry. As a new coach coming in, it was a priority of mine to develop chemistry with the team and I was fortunate to be welcomed into a great group of girls who are already close to each other."
In an attempt to solidify itself as a national contender, the Cardinal will feature a challenging 2002 schedule. Stanford's 2002 ledger includes a season-opening contest at Minnesota and a tough four-team meet with powerhouses Florida, Penn State and Illinois-Chicago in early February. Pac-10 foes Washington, Arizona State, Arizona, UCLA, Oregon State and California are all showcased on the schedule, and the Cardinal will host the Pac-10 Championships in March. "All the Pac-10 schools are strong this year," Smyth noted. "UCLA is the defending national champion and sets the standard for excellence in our conference. Oregon State and Arizona State always have powerful squads as well. Both schools qualified for Nationals last year and will put out a great team again this year. To be able to host Pac-10 Championships is exciting for us and it should give us a chance to get out there and really show the community a great competition."
The Cardinal had several freshman step up last season to provide stability in the vault event. This year's squad features much of the same, with an array of gymnasts that are capable of making this event a strength in 2002. Sophomore Caroline Fluhrer turned in Stanford's best individual performance in the event of the season, posting a 9.975 total at Pac-10 Championships- tying a school record.
"I think we have the capability of having eight vaults that can start at a 10.0," explained Smyth. "Sophomore Lindsay Wing and junior Kelsey Stillinger will both be competitive for us this season. Shelly Goldberg is a sophomore who is absolutely outstanding and I think she could be a national champion in this event."
The Cardinal, which set a new school record on the vault last season (49.375) at Pac-10 Championships, will also look to receive production from other gymnasts in the event. Freshman Mandy Delgado, the 2000 Junior Olympic Vault Champion, is an outstanding vaulter who is very powerful and dynamic. Sophomores Lis? Leveille and Kendall Beck are two promising talents to keep an eye on, as Smyth thinks both could have breakthrough seasons.
"Beck is coming off an injury and is very determined, while Lis? is working on a new vault that is extremely powerful. I watch them doing drills in practice and the potential for them looks good."
According to Smyth and the coaching staff, this is an event where a team can really separate themselves out by executing clean landings and originality. Stanford notched a season-high 9.950 score on three different occasions in 2001, with Wing and Fluhrer each accomplishing the feat once.
"Fluhrer is absolutely exciting and is upgrading her release and continuing to learn new skills. Wing is another returning starter who is increasing her skill selection and difficulty and excels at execution."
Another option in the lineup includes junior Alissa Cooper, who despite battling past injuries, looks to provide depth and is such a great team leader that Smyth "has to put reins on her to stop working sometimes."
Seniors Kristin Jensen, a Second Team All-American selection on bars following her freshman year, and Katy Herbert, who garnered First Team All-American honors on the balance beam in 2000, should also factor into the mix as both gymnasts are capable of show-stopping performances. Smyth also raves about junior Abby Gair, who has a "gorgeous toe point and when you look at bars and lines, she gets straighter than everyone else." Senior Becky Meldrum, a proven veteran and emotional team leader, is another aggressive bar-worker and knows how to succeed in the event.
In what Smyth believes could be Stanford's best event, the Cardinal will be looking to fill the position with youth and depth. Though the Cardinal lost All-Around specialist Jen Exaltacion to graduation, there are numerous options for Stanford. Wing capped off an incredible rookie campaign with a second place finish on beam at the NCAA Championships, earning First Team All-America honors. Leveille, an All-Pac-10 selection on the beam, was the gold medalist in the same event at the 1999 Pan-Am Games.
"We lost Jen but added two phenomenal freshman so I think we got both deeper and better," Smyth said. "And you throw in Katy, who is an outstanding beam worker who made the finals and was second on the balance beam by herself without the team in 2000."
Both highly-touted freshmen Delgado and Marla Ranieri, a member of the fifth place American team at the 1997 Trophee Massila in France, should also provide a spark for the Cardinal in their first seasons. Meldrum, Beck and Fluhrer are also versatile gymnasts who can compete on the balance beam when needed.
According to Smyth, the floor exercise will be as important an event as any other. "We want to create some fun routines the crowd will really enjoy and hopefully take us to the next level. If you can get the crowd into your routines and get the judges excited at the same time, the floor will separate you."
Leveille had a terrific season for the Cardinal last year on floor, as the First Team All-American completed a solid freshman season with an eleventh place finish in the event finals. She was named to the Pac-10 All-Conference team for the event, posting a 9.950 score at the conference championships. The diverse group of floor exercise workers also features Fluhrer and Wing, who are expected to compete as All-Arounders. In addition, Meldrum, Jensen and Herbert have plenty of experience and can be key components for the Cardinal if called upon. Goldberg is a good tumbler on the floor as well, in what appears to be a multi-faceted group that will provide additional options for Stanford.
"That's the beauty of a long season," said Smyth. "You can get different athletes plenty of experience."