Although Arizona State, Washington and NorCal United technically kicked off NCAA competition on Jan. 5 (with the Sun Devils prevailing) we really got our first taste of widespread competition this weekend.
It didn’t disappoint.
We had a pair of multi-team competitions in the West Point Open and Rocky Mountain Open, along with a pair of duels in Illinois–UIC and Stanford–Cal. While we learned a lot, (and we’ll get into each competition individually) we’re going to start off with something we’ll be doing in each week’s recap: One Thing We Learned.
Oklahoma Has A Legit Competitor In Stanford
Consider this somewhat obvious given the scores, but it’s clear that the Stanford Cardinal is one of the two best teams in the country. Are they No. 1? Certainly it’s not close to fair to say that after one week of outscoring the four-time defending NCAA champs by less than a point at an entirely different meet, but it’s an entertaining thought for anyone trying to create a story-line for the postseason.
Yep, we’re already talking about the postseason.
West Point Open
The 2019 NCAA season kicked off Friday night in Christl Arena for all of the teams east of State College, Pennsylvania. The United States Military Academy has been home to the West Point Open for 28 years, and it was Penn State who grabbed their sixth-straight title in the 2019 competition.
Head Coach Randy Jepson was not content with the solid start for the Nittany Lions. “We were really under the bar today, we had a lot of bad misses…we have to be more solid all across the board.”
Sam Zakutney (NCAA Gymnast of the Week) kept Penn State on track in this one, putting an end to the “does Penn State have a superstar?” debate. The junior paced the Nittany Lions, taking home three event titles, (FX – 14.450, PB – 13.950, HB – 13.700) as well as the all-around title with an 81.000.
Penn State also could have found the missing puzzle piece in this one as well. Favian Valdez, who missed the entirety of last season with an injury, was outstanding on Friday night. Valdez placed in the top three on three different events (PH, 2nd – 14.000, VT, 3T – 14.200, HB, 2nd – 13.650).
Another bright spot for the West Point Open champions came on rings. Penn State flashed a 70.450, showing that they have the potential to be the top team in the country on this event. Greg Tamargo and Noah Roberson led the way (14.500) with Isaac Hammett coming in right behind them (14.350).
To cap it all off, back-to-back NCAA champion Stephen Nedoroscik put up a seemingly casual 15.300 career high on the pommel horse.
It was a tough start for Navy, but they were able to finish the meet strong to grab a second place finish. Heading into the final rotation, the Midshipmen were 2.45 points behind their rival, Army, in second place. Navy closed out strong on floor with a 68.100 to edge the Black Knights.
Head Coach Kip Simons had this to say about the finish. “I can’t tell you how proud I am of these guys…there is just no quit in this group. For a bunch of young guys to understand the importance of never quitting, they became men tonight.”
Junior Lucas Beltran had a great showing with two top-three finishes (VT, 1st – 14.500, PB, 2nd – 13.900). Ryan Orce and David Toussaint showed a glimpse of what they can do for Navy at the back of their pommel horse lineup with fourth and sixth places finishes respectively (13.850 and 13.550). Highly touted freshman Josh Williams out of Cypress Academy also made his debut competing floor, rings and vault. His 10th place finish on floor (13.450) contributed to the Navy comeback.
Kip Simons liked the fight in this young Navy squad and they should have plenty of momentum coming out of the West Point Open.
Army, William & Mary and Springfield rounded out the top five. Army was led by Cole Casanova who took second in the all-around with an 80.050. Matt Davis also showed a spark indicative of what is to come for the freshman, taking sixth in the all-around with a 76.200 and had a second place showing on floor with a 14.300.
David Watkins was the highlight for William & Mary, scoring a 14.500 on rings good enough to tie for first place on the event. Stephen Lewis cashed in a tremendous third place finish in the all-around for Springfield with a 78.400 including a third place finish on p-bars with a 13.750.
One final note: the judging at this competition seemed a bit more lenient than other meets across the country.
(the West Point Open recap was courtesy of former Penn State gymnast, Ben Cooperman)
Rocky Mountain Open
Slowly, but surely, the Rocky Mountain Open is becoming the premier men’s college gymnastics meet of the year. Not only do we get a handful of top-notch teams battling it out, but the OTC men have been competing alongside them as well.
This year’s installment ended with a similar victor to years past, the four-time defending NCAA champion, Oklahoma Sooners.
With their centerpiece, senior Yul Moldauer, doing just two events the Sooners were still able to secure a six-point victory over the second place finisher, Nebraska. Moldauer was OU’s lone event winner with his 14.35 on SR.
The lone all-arounder was Matt Wenske who finished his day just two tenths out of first-place with an 80.1. This actually marked Wenske’s first time doing all six events in an NCAA competition after he missed last season due to injury and did not do all-around his freshman season. Having Wenske at full health is such an important thing for this Oklahoma team.
Another OU gymnast who had a nice evening was sophomore Gage Dyer. Dyer competed three events for the Sooners and finished with a 13.4+ on each of them, resulting in a pair of top-four event finishes. The Yukon, OK native was impressive as a freshman, but he’ll play an even larger role this season.
“The guys closed things out well, doing a good job on the last two events,” Williams told SoonerSports.com after the meet. “We definitely have a lot to improve on. We’re looking forward to going home and getting settled in at McCasland Field House. I’m happy for the team, we put up a good score and we have time to improve. Hoping this is just the first step to better things in the future.”
Though Nebraska wasn’t able to take out Oklahoma, they’re surely happy about besting a pair of B1G foes in Minnesota and Ohio State.
The Huskers’ day was highlighted by a meet-high 69.3 on PB where they were led by Andrew Zymball and his third-place 14.35. Not a single one of the six men on PB for Nebraska scored below a 13.6 on the event. That right there is the true difference between this current Nebraska teams and ones from the past — consistency and a lack of any devastatingly low scores.
The majority of Nebraska’s scoring came from the all-around champion, Anton Stephenson (80.3) and sophomore Griffin Kehler (79.55). Kehler joined Stephenson as an event champion by claiming the FX title. We know all the things Stephenson can do, but Kehler providing his team a legitimate second top all-around option is a huge help.
Finishing off the top three were the Minnesota Golden Gophers. They were nipped by a mere .45 by the Huskers — something I’m sure they’re already looking forward to avenging on Feb. 23 in Lincoln.
The Gophers’ lone event title came from senior Vitali Kan on VT. Aside from Kan, there were impressive showings from Justin Karstadt (a pair of top-five finishes), Shaun Herzog (78.05 in the all-around) and Timmy Kutyla who came up big-time for Minnesota on both PB and HB.
Finishing in fourth were the Ohio State Buckeyes. As you could’ve guessed, Alec Yoder looked just about ready as can be with a pair of event titles on PH and PB. He debuted a new dismount on the latter, sticking a double-front half-out to finish a beautiful routine.
It’s just one meet, but it’s clear there will still be some depth issues for Ohio State. They’re young, and those guys will step up as the season continues, but they’ll need some more fire power on PH as nobody eclipsed the 12.8-mark other than Yoder.
Fifth-place belonged to the ASU Sun Devils. Sophomore phenom Kiwan Watts secured a pair of top-three finishes (SR and PB) while his classmate, Max Williams, stood out with a seventh-place finish on PH.
For Air Force, the clear standout performance came on high bar. Senior Lukas Texeira made it known that he’ll be competing for All-American status in 2019 with this title-winning routine.
SC United rounded out the field and they were led by Calvin Valrie’s 69.65 in the all-around.
Full results can be found here.
(The Rocky Mountain Open recap was courtesy of former Illinois gymnast, Logan Bradley)
Cal Benefit Cup
No. 2 Stanford notched the highest team score in the country to best No. 11 California at the Cal Benefit Cup last Saturday.
The Stanford Cardinal swept the event titles on the way to scoring 411.25, surpassing No. 1 Oklahoma’s 410.45 at the Rocky Mountain Open the same day. (OU had originally tied with Stanford for the highest score of the week, but their score was subsequently lowered after a misused injury-substitution rule was addressed.)
“The guys kept their calm and kept plugging away,” Stanford head coach Thom Glielmi said in a post-meet interview. “It was a very good sign for this early in the season.”
The California Golden Bears scored 392.35, and senior Aaron Mah tied for the high bar title. Freshman Darren Wong placed fourth in the all-around with a 77.7.
“This was a strong start for us. A lot of things were not perfect, but to come out of the gates with a score and performance like this and battle back at the end shows this team is capable of a lot,” California head coach JT Okada said in an interview. “We just need to get back into the gym and address a couple of key areas and we’ll be back out here doing even better next time.”
Earning event titles for Stanford were junior Connor Lewis on floor; junior Joey Ringer on pommel horse; freshman Ian Gunther on rings; sophomore Bryan Perla on vault; senior Grant Breckenridge on parallel bars and in the all around; and junior David Jessen on high bar.
For Cal, freshman Kyle Abe earned third on pommel horse.
Week 1 of NCAA competition usually isn’t a true indicator of how the season will shake out, but Stanford made a statement in topping Oklahoma’s score early — perhaps this is the season in which the Sooners’ seemingly unrelenting dominance hits an inflection point.
As always, prognosticating using scores from different meets across the country isn’t good science. But since Stanford won’t actually face the Sooners until the MPSF championships April 6, guessing is as good as we’re going to get for now. To many, Stanford’s performance Week 1 was strong enough to forecast a heated exchange between the two teams come postseason, a welcome development for those tired of the OU juggernaut.
Full results can be found here.
(the Cal Benefit Cup recap was courtesy of former Minnesota gymnast, Alex Wittenberg)
UIC @ Illinois
In the first taste of 2019 competition for both teams, the Fighting Illini took down the UIC Flames in Champaign, IL.
While the bookends of the meet (FX and HB) weren’t pretty for the Illini, there were a few bright spots that can be taken away. First was the debut of freshman Michael Fletcher (NCAA Rookie of the Week) The rookie’s 80.05 all-around score was good enough to grab the title along with the top freshman AA score across the entire NCAA. Nobody expects Fletcher to be Bobby Baker — or produce the way that Baker did — but it’s obvious that the Illini have a good one on their hands.
“[Fletcher] really capitalized,” Spring told fightingillini.com after the meet. “I think he proved he is going to be a gamer for us all year long. We knew he was going to be a heavy hitter for us and he came out and showed it in the first meet of the year.”
Aside from Fletcher, Illinois got good performances from Alex Diab (event titles on FX, SR and VT), Johnny Jacobson (PB title and a 78.7 all-around score) and Michael Paradise (PH title).
As for Paradise on PH, he came into 2019 with some major expectations given the departure of multiple PH fixtures like Brandon Ngai. He sure looked up to the task as he swung with plenty of confidence.
How young is UIC? They were led by four underclassmen (Nick Smiley, Xan Weaver, Paul Burney and Sam Montague) all-around, three of which are freshmen. The rookie, Smiley, led the way securing a third-place all-around finish with his 69.25. That included a top-five finish on PB.
Full results can be found here.
The Illinois-UIC recap was courtesy of former Illinois gymnast, Logan Bradley)