Jan. 30, 2012
STANFORD, Calif. -
One of the most fascinating aspects in the dynamics of any team is seeing how athletes grow into leadership roles after older athletes depart.
In the world of Stanford women's gymnastics, Nicole Dayton and Ashley Morgan have embraced that opportunity.
Together, the juniors are essentially the foundation of a young Stanford team that few are considering among NCAA Super Six contenders. But the Cardinal, ranked No. 12, plans to live up to the standards that have been ingrained in the past - with three top-four NCAA finishes since 2004.
"The biggest difference this year is that we are upperclassmen," Morgan said. "It's my job to step up as a leader and be someone that people on this team can look up to."
If there is a single characteristic that Dayton and Morgan bring to the team, it is versatility.
Dayton broke into the lineup as a sophomore and by the end of the season was a regular in three events - the vault, floor exercise, and uneven bars - and never scored below 9.700 in any event.
Morgan has been more than steady on the floor, her signature event. She has reached 9.90 or beyond in 12 of her past 14 meets. And, in the others, she scored at least 9.85.
Morgan is expected to be Stanford's top all-arounder, while Dayton will again provide durability and a steady hand in three events.
But the other growing aspect is leadership. Each has pledged to take on the additional responsibilities on a team that includes eight freshman or sophomores, including seven who had never competed in a collegiate meet before this season.
"People don't expect much from us," Dayton said. "But we're going to surprise people."
Dayton, a native of East Grand Rapids, Mich., recalled the days in club and high school when her performance could be erratic depending on her level of confidence. Now, she looks back and sees herself in as a different gymnast.
"It's been exciting for me to find that consistent mental toughness from week to week," Dayton said. "That's been a big change since high school. I attribute it to doing this so long. It's become routine to me."
There are two meets in particular that illustrate Dayton's fearlessness. In her first collegiate meet, at defending national champion UCLA, she scored a 9.825 on the vault to finish second and help the Cardinal to a dual-meet victory. Last week at Oregon State, after missing a meet with injury, she scored a 9.90 on the vault for Stanford's highest score this season on that event.
Morgan, from Danville, Calif., has a similar history. She averaged 9.83 over three events in her first collegiate meet - before more than 10,000 at five-time defending champion Georgia. Last season, she finished with the highest season average in the nation on floor (9.917).
This year, she will add two new passes, plus incorporate the double Arabians that will add value to her score.
"I never think about the scoring," Morgan said. "I'm just happy out there. I don't overthink anything. Now, I just need to translate that mentality to my other three events."
While Dayton and Morgan have much to offer their teammates, they know the feeling is reciprocal. They feed off each other.
"I love the personality of this year's team," she said. "There just seems to be a competitive edge."
An edge fueled mostly by its juniors.
-- David Kiefer, Stanford Athletics