By John Rohde
There were a multitude of firsts for the Oklahoma women’s gymnastics team last season.
The program won its first NCAA title, and did so while breaking the championship scoring record, which resulted in the sport’s first-ever co-championship.
The Sooners and Florida Gators both claimed the crown after each posted a record 198.175 points at the Super Six in Birmingham, Ala. After a few minutes of limbo standing near the awards podium, the victors eventually learned there was no tiebreaking procedure and the title would be shared.
Given how close her teams previously had come to winning the crown, Sooners coach K.J. Kindler was more than happy to share the school’s first national title with the Gators.
“When you win, you win – regardless if someone tied you or not,” Kindler said. “We also got the NCAA scoring record. It was the best meet of our lives. We couldn’t have done any better. I felt fine about it. It’s so rare. It’s so unusual. It never happens. You just don’t think it’s even possible when you keep score to hundredths of a point.”
Rebecca Clark is one of only three seniors on this year’s roster and vividly remembers the disappointment of not advancing to the “Super Six” during her freshman season in 2012.
“Clearly, both teams deserved it, so I think it’s awesome for both teams to have won it,” Clark said of last year’s co-championship. “It was just such an historic accomplishment, not only to become the first team in school history to win it, but to break the championship scoring record and to make history with the first-ever tie. I think that just made it more special for both teams.”
The 2014 co-champs will meet again at 6:45 p.m. Friday (March 6) at Lloyd Noble Center, where the top-ranked Sooners (12-0) hope to break the program’s all-time attendance record of 3,293 set Jan. 23 against Southeast Missouri State and Texas Women’s University. Friday’s meet against the No. 3-ranked Gators will be Senior Night and the final regular-season competition for Clark, Erica Brewer and Haley Sorensen.
Another historic feat potentially awaits if the OU women can win a second straight national championship this season.
Oklahoma could become the first school in history to claim NCAA titles in both men’s and women’s gymnastics in the same year.
Both teams currently are ranked No. 1. The men’s team, primed to win its ninth national title, has been atop the poll every week and has set national scoring records in its last two meets. The women’s team started out ranked No. 2 and has been No. 1 for eight straight weeks, doubling the program’s longest previous stint atop the poll.
In addition to being No. 1 in the overall rankings, the OU women also rank No. 1 on the uneven bars, balance beam and floor exercise and No. 3 on vault.
The Sooners lead the nation with 17 individual appearances in this week’s rankings on all four events. No other team has more than 11.
Junior Haley Scaman has won or tied for an event title in every meet and leads the team with 15 titles this season. She scored a 10.0 on vault and now has four career perfect scores. Scaman is ranked No. 4 on vault (9.935), tied for No. 5 on floor (9.930) and tied for No. 7 on bars (9.895).
Brenna Dowell scored a 10.0 on the bars to become the first true freshman in the program’s history to earn a perfect score. She is tied for No. 7 nationally on bars (9.895) and floor (9.920) and tied for No. 22 on vault (9.890).
Capps continues to excel on beam, where she is ranked No. 1 (9.920). She also is tied for No. 9 on vault (9.915).
Sophomore McKenzie Wofford ranks No. 2 on bars (9.940). Sophomore Kara Lovan is tied for No. 7 on beam (9.890) and tied for No. 17 on floor (9.895). Brewer is tied for No. 18 on both bars (9.875) and beam (9.865). Sorensen is tied for No. 18 on beam (9.865).
Clark is tied for No. 15 on beam (9.870), which quickly became her favorite event at the age of 3 because she really didn’t have much choice. “I was really little and couldn’t make it over the vault table, so I didn’t vault,” Clark explained. “I couldn’t jump up to the high bar by myself either because I was too small. I did beam because size didn’t really matter.”
Kindler arrived at OU in the fall of 2006 after spending 18 seasons at Iowa State (1989-2006) as a standout gymnast, assistant coach and head coach. She became the first coach in NCAA history to advance two different programs to the Super Six (Iowa State in 2006; OU in 2010, 2011, 2013, 2014). Kindler twice has been named national coach of the year (2005, 2010), is six-time regional coach of the year (2004, 2006, 2010, 2011, 2013, 2014) and eight-time Big 12 coach of the year (2004, 2005, 2006, 2008, 2010, 2012, 2013, 2014).
The OU women have finished in the top 3 nationally four of the last five seasons, with runner-up finishes in 2010 and 2013. The program made its biggest jump nationally with a runner-up finish in 2010 after placing 10th the previous season, then came a third-place finish in 2011. The 2013 season ended with a gut-wrenching runner-up finish when the Sooners wound up just two-tenths of a point (197.575-197.375) behind champion Florida.
“Those (second-place finishes) were far more difficult to accept than tying last year,” Kindler said emphatically. “We did all we could (in 2013), but it’s still disappointing because you look back and think, ‘Where could we have made up those two-tenths?’ It kind of haunts you.”
Clark said that narrow loss has been a driving force for her and her teammates ever since. “That was extremely motivating,” Clark said. “Two-tenths in gymnastics is the littlest thing, but it was good to finish that way coming off the previous year (when OU didn’t qualify for the championship meet).”
The NCAA initially sanctioned women’s gymnastics in 1982 and the first 31 championships were won by just four schools – Georgia (10), Utah (nine), Alabama (six) and UCLA (six) – until Florida captured the 2013 championship.
The incessant “S-E-C” chant that echoes throughout the south every college football season also reverberates inside arenas during women’s gymnastics. Five teams ranked in this week’s Top 10 are from the Southeastern Conference. At the 2009 Super Six, the SEC finished first, second, fourth, fifth and sixth. Four of the six team qualifiers for last year’s national championship meet were SEC schools, with the other two being OU and Nebraska.
“You’re fighting giants,” Kindler said of the SEC. “You really are.”
Under Kindler’s guidance, the Sooners now have a national presence, but their ascent didn’t happen overnight.
“You kind of have to chip away at your reputation,” Kindler explained. “Our philosophy was that we were going to be the best team on the first meet of the year. That was our goal. Sounds kind of crazy because a lot of teams gear toward the end of the year and that becomes their goal. My thinking was if we’re going to make a name for ourselves, we have to be awesome right away. If we get this gigantic score right away, people will go ‘Whoa, where did they come from?’ Even though over the course of the year we might move down to No. 4 or No. 5 in those earlier years, that still put us in the minds of the judges and other programs. We wanted them to think, ‘Hey, we’ve got to watch out for these guys.’ ”
Confirmation of the Sooners’ prowess came during last Friday’s meet at Illinois, where Fighting Illini fans gave OU gymnasts an earful throughout the competition.
“People think gymnastics fans don’t heckle, but you should have heard the things fans said to them (OU gymnasts) during routines,” Kindler said with a chuckle. “There were people yelling ‘fall’ and all sorts of lovely things about making a mistake. They were making fun of our conference. They were saying Oklahoma State is way better than Oklahoma. I was like, ‘Oh, get me out of here.’ At the same time, that’s awesome. When I hear people heckling us, I think, ‘Oh, my gosh. We’ve made it.’ That’s like your typical football fan and basketball fan. They’re passionate. They want their team to win so badly. It’s cool that gymnastics can be that way, too.”
Last week’s hostile environment also gave Kindler a chance to observe how her team handled adversity. The Sooners responded with their second-highest score this season (197.875).
“Every athlete is different in what they hear and how focused they are, or how focused they have to be to be successful,” Kindler said. “They know best where they need to be mentally in order to be in the zone. Everybody’s zone is a little different. They have to be able to handle that stuff (heckling).”
Contrary to popular belief, gymnasts actually prefer to have crowd noise rather than silence during their routines, which is why the Sooners want LNC rocking when the Gators visit.
“We love the crowd. We feed off their energy,” Clark said. “I don’t hear it as much as most people. I try to get in my own world (when performing), but I know they’re there. I may not necessarily focus on hearing them, but I know they’re there.”
Clark isn’t alone. Capps also wants some noise.
“Definitely yes,” Capps said. “At home meets, when the crowd is super quiet because they think they can’t talk at me during beam because it’ll affect my concentration? Yeah, that’s definitely a myth. The louder the better, and you can definitely feed off other teammates.”
|About John Rohde|
|John Rohde is a respected name on the Oklahoma sports scene and will provide regular features for SoonerSports.com. Voted Oklahoma Sportswriter of the Year five times, Rohde has covered OU football and basketball, the Oklahoma City Thunder, OKC/New Orleans Hornets, Dallas Cowboys, Texas Rangers, the Final Four, Masters and PGA Tour. He spent over 26 years for The Oklahoman, serving as a columnist and beat writer. He can be heard on 107.7 The Franchise, the flagship station for OU Athletics weekdays from 5:30-9 a.m.|