Jan. 4, 2013
STANFORD, Calif. -
When the Stanford women's gymnastics team steps onto the floor to begin the 2013 season, it will do so with a deep and talented group.
The Cardinal enters the 2013 campaign, which begins Friday at 7 p.m. at the NorCal Quad Meet at San Jose State's Spartan Center, ranked sixth in the nation.
Stanford concluded last season with a remarkable fourth-place finish at the 2012 NCAA Championships. The team hit all 24 of its routines, earning the program's highest score at the Super Six (197.500) and finishing within 0.35 points of first-place - the closest margin to a championship in program history. The team compiled an impressive 14-6 regular season record before making its sixth NCAA Super Six appearance.
It was the team's fourth NCAA top-four finish since 2004 and made Stanford one of only four programs in the nation with at least three top-four finishes since 2008.
Stanford was led by a school-record seven All-Americans in nine events - an impressive feat considering four of the gymnasts were either freshmen or sophomores.
The Cardinal returns five All-Americans in six events and 11 letterwinners overall in 2013. The team also welcomes back Kristina Vaculik, who took last season off to prepare for and compete in the 2012 London Olympics.
Head coach Kristen Smyth is excited about the depth and experience this team will compete with this season.
"Experience is huge," Smyth said. "We return five All-Americans who competed in a Super Six and return 10 out of 15 athletes on this roster that have competed at the highest level and know what it's like to go head-to-head and be within 0.35 points of an NCAA team title.
"We plan to cultivate our depth early in the season, allowing for many athletes to get action. We will build as the season progresses and look to have our best performances again in April."
Smyth attributes much of her confidence in this year's team to the hard work and effort the gymnasts have contributed throughout the preseason. The team adopted the motto, "All in, every moment" this season, and Smyth believes the team has fully embraced and embodies that mindset.
"This team has really pushed themselves this preseason and the commitment level is at an all-time high," Smyth said. "I'm also really excited about the amount of high-quality depth we have in our lineups this year. We have many athletes that are capable of scoring 9.9 or better."
Despite having talent and depth, the Cardinal will have to fill the void left by the graduation of last year's captains Alyssa Brown and Nicole Pechanec - both of whom were All-Americans.
The team will look to seniors Nicole Dayton and Ashley Morgan, and junior Amanda Spinner to captain the youthful group.
Dayton will help lead a talented vault group that was a staple for the Cardinal during last year's Super Six, contributing to the second-highest vault team score in school history (49.550). She is a powerful athlete who will be a major contributor on floor exercise and provide depth on the uneven bars.
"Nicole is in the shape of her life and is ready to set the tone on floor as our leadoff performer and anchor us on vault," Smyth said. "She is steady, consistent and a great leader in our program."
Morgan will provide a wealth of experience and leadership. The two-time defending Pac-12 champion and All-American on floor exercise is expected to be a top performer in all four events.
"Ashley is explosive and so much fun to watch," Smyth said. "On floor, she's one of the most dynamic performers in the country. She has great leadership experience and has competed in two Super Sixes in her time with two fourth-place finishes. She knows what it takes and I expect her to be leading the team on all four events."
Spinner is coming off a remarkable 2012 in which she returned from a serious injury that kept her from competing for two and a half years to become one of Stanford's most consistent and top performers. She dominated on the balance beam, winning the NCAA Champaign Regional championship and earning first-team All-America honors after finishing fourth at the NCAA Championships. Along with competing on beam, Spinner may see time on the uneven bars.
"She's an exceptional leader, loves the sport and cares deeply about the program," Smyth said. "She's so invested at every level and will once again be the backbone of our beam team."
A 2008 Olympian for Australia during the Beijing Games, junior Shona Morgan will also be called upon to provide leadership and experience. Morgan was one of the most consistent performers on beam in 2012, scoring 9.825 or higher in 10 of 13 meets. She received All-America honors on balance beam and was a main contributor on floor exercise.
Morgan will continue to be a staple for Stanford in these three events.
"She's a real rock for the team," Smyth said. "Her work is wonderfully artistic and she has a new show-stopping floor routine that fans will enjoy. She is a calm and confident competitor, always consistent, and will lead us off on bars and beam."
Smyth expects fellow junior Lucy Meyer to be a vocal leader and provide charisma with her dynamic personality. Meyer will likely focus on vault, providing depth in one of the Cardinal's strongest events.
After missing the 2012 season to prepare for and compete in the London Olympics for Canada, Kristina Vaculik returns for her sophomore campaign and is expected to be a national contender in all four events. Smyth is excited about Vaculik's potential this season now that she can focus solely on competing collegiately.
"During her freshman year she was still balancing the national world with the college world - that was a challenge," Smyth said. "She is back now after leading the Canadian team at the Olympic Games to a historic fifth-place finish and is ready to shine. She's world-class on all four events and is ready to take the collegiate world by storm."
One of the key factors for the Cardinal will be how the sophomore class performs after a breakout freshman year. The class, led by Ivana Hong, Pauline Hanset, Samantha Shapiro and Rebecca Wing were all major contributors throughout the 2012 season and each competed in at least one event at the Super Six. Alex Archer rounds out the sophomore squad that lived up to its high expectations last season and will be a major factor in the Cardinal's success.
Hong had perhaps the most prolific breakout season as a freshman, finishing fourth in the balance beam at the NCAA Championships and winning the Pac-12 championship on vault. She earned first-team All-America honors on the balance beam and second-team All-America honors on vault. Hong recorded team-best scores in the all-around (39.475) and vault (9.975) during the Super Six.
Smyth expects Hong to again be a major contributor in all four events.
"She's one of our strongest athletes mentally and physically," Smyth said. "She is healthy and looks phenomenal on all four events. She's a competitor and I believe one of the top all-around performers in the country."
The Cardinal will rely on Shapiro to anchor its uneven bars team. After being somewhat limited by injuries early last season, Shapiro put together an incredible run to claim a second-place NCAA finish on the uneven bars - becoming only the second gymnast in school history to finish in the top two.
In her final four meets of the season, Shapiro never scored lower than a 9.8, showcasing her potential when healthy. Smyth expects Shapiro to also contribute on vault and floor.
"Sami is a true artist," Smyth said. "Her lines, her toe point and overall execution are second to none. I'm looking forward to seeing her contribute on more events this season."
Wing, a 2008 Olympian for England, has fought hard to recover from an ACL injury just in time for the season and will be a strong performer on the balance beam and uneven bars.
"She's just one of those incredible performers you can't help but watch," Smyth said. "She really draws the crowd in and she's absolutely stunning - her work is perfection."
Hanset was a consistent performer on vault and floor exercise, competing in the two events at every meet last season. Smyth expects Hanset to again be a major contributor in those two events and to also gain experience in balance beam and uneven bars.
"[Pauline] is a gift to our program," Smyth said. "When you watch her you can't help but smile. She loves the sport, loves to compete and is a tremendous team player."
Archer saw limited time on vault last year, but Smyth expects the sophomore from Newport Beach, Calif., will see an expanded role this season and notes Archer's lines on the uneven bars are particularly impressive.
"I can see her being a top-six bar performer for us," Smyth said.
Freshmen Melissa Chuang and Taylor Rice are expected to make an immediate impact for the team by competing for starting positions in vault and balance beam, respectively.
"Melissa will be a starter on vault," Smyth said. "She will provide depth for us on beam and floor.
"Taylor is just an outstanding performer. She is clean in her work and executes at a high level. She'll hopefully be right there in the staring lineup on beam and fighting for lineup spots on floor."
Maggie Teets and Jenna Frowein round out the talented freshman class and are both expected to provide depth on the balance beam and floor exercise.
Managing a team with so much experience and depth, along with being patient and building over the course of the season, is the task at hand, Smyth notes. She will rely heavily on assistant coaches Chris Swircek and Tabitha Yim who return for their tenth and third years, respectively, to help develop and prepare the team throughout the season.
"We have a great staff assembled to help our athletes reach their full potential as a group," Smyth added. "Chris is one of the top technicians in the country and has coached five Super Six teams in his tenure. Tab brings the same passion, confidence and enthusiasm to the gym that she did as an athlete at Stanford. We are so fortunate to have both of them in the program."
Preparation will be key for Stanford as it will again embark on one of the most challenging schedules in the nation, taking on perennial Super Six participants Oklahoma, Georgia, UCLA and Utah.
"We have a great opportunity to go on the road this season and compete against Utah and Oklahoma," Smyth said. "I like that we get to see them at the end of the season, when we should be in peak form. We have a tough schedule with some great competition that will prepare us well for the postseason."
Smyth knows this season will challenge her team in all aspects but believes in her coaching staff and gymnasts.
"We will continue to work hard and will be prepared to peak when it matters most - at the NCAA Championships," Smyth said. "As always, we will focus our efforts on putting a great product out on the floor, one that our fans and judges will enjoy. I like that we are recognized for our detail oriented approach, our artistry and our undeniable team chemistry.
"We can't wait to get started."