Jan. 4, 2010
NORMAN, Okla. -- The back-to-back Big 12 Champion OU women’s gymnastics squad opens the 2010 season ranked ninth in the GymInfo preseason coaches poll, the highest ranking of any conference squad.
The Sooners return 11 members from last season’s group that clinched OU’s second straight conference title and advanced to the NCAA Championships for the sixth consecutive year.
Oklahoma is looking to build on the strong foundation that has been set in recent years.
The Sooners are one of just six squads to advance to the NCAA Championships every year since 2004, joining Alabama, Florida, Georgia, LSU and Utah on that elite list.
The Sooners return just 14 of 24 routines from the 2009 NCAA Championships - the fewest of any team ranked in the 2010 GymInfo preseason coaches poll. Oklahoma does return seven gymnasts who saw action at last year’s NCAA Championships and is bolstered by the return of four-time U.S. National Team member Natasha Kelley, who returns to the lineup after missing the 2009 season with an achilles tear.
Headlining OU’s returnees is sophomore All-American Megan Ferguson. The Olathe, Kan., native capped off her stellar freshman campaign by garnering All-America status on beam at the 2009 NCAA Championships. She became the first freshman in Big 12 history to win multiple event titles at the conference championship (bars and beam).
Other returnees include All-Big 12 selections in Jackie Flanery (floor - 2008), Melanie Root (vault - 2009), Kristin Smith (floor - 2009) and Hollie Vise (bars - 2008, beam - 2008, 2009). The quartet has combined for nine Big 12 Event Specialist of the Week honors in the past two seasons.
Also returning in 2010 are event title winners Mary Mantle (Big 12 Event Specialist of the Week on Feb. 12, 2008, after her vault win at Denver) and Sara Stone (three vault titles in 2009).
This season also marks the final send-off for Julie Kramer, while other returnees include juniors Candace Cindell and Natalie Ratcliff. Ratcliff was a mainstay in the vault and beam lineup a year ago.
OU gymnastics fans also will have their first chance to see OU’s freshman class of Bethany Neubauer, Kayla Nowak, Brie Olson and Nitya Ramaswami.
The slate includes regular season matchups against nine squads ranked in the preseason GymInfo top-25 poll, including OU’s season-opener on Jan. 8 in Norman against the No. 4 Florida Gators, a Super Six squad in 2009.
UF is one of four squads on OU’s 2010 schedule that competed at the NCAA Championships last season, joining Alabama, Arkansas and Illinois.
The reigning Big 12 Champions also host events against Nebraska (Feb. 5), Iowa State (Feb. 12), Alabama (March 5) and Washington (March 12).
Alabama won the second qualifying session of the 2008 NCAA Championship, advancing to the Super Six.
OU’s meeting with Big 12 rival ISU on Feb. 12 will feature the OU wrestling squad grappling with Chattanooga in the third annual Beauty and the Beast night.
“We are extremely excited about our upcoming schedule,” said Kindler, who has guided the Sooners to the last two Big 12 titles. “The Big 12 Conference always provides a strong test against high quality opponents. We also get a chance to compete against some regular season opponents that we have not faced in recent years.
“Our fans will see some great gymnastics with a top-notch home slate that features Super Six qualifiers Florida and Alabama, a matchup with Washington and battles with traditionally strong Big 12 programs in Nebraska and Iowa State.”
OU travels to Auburn (Jan. 15), Illinois (Jan. 23), Missouri (Feb. 19), Michigan State (Feb. 26), and Arkansas (March 19) for its road slate.
Oklahoma also travels to Dallas for the Metroplex Challenge on Jan. 30, in a quad meet that features Alaska-Anchorage, N.C. State and TWU.
Nebraska hosts the Big 12 Championships on March 27 in Lincoln, Neb., as the Sooners seek their third straight conference title.
NCAA Regional competition is scheduled for April 10 at six campus sites, while the NCAA Championships will be hosted by Florida in Gainesville, Fla., April 22-24.
The following is an event-by-event breakdown of the 2009 Sooners.
• Final 2009 Team Rank (RQS): Ninth (49.220)
• Top Returning Scorer (RQS): Sara Stone, 45th (9.86)
Oklahoma must replace three strong vaulters from the 2009 season in Jessica Kinder, Ashley Jackson and Haley Horton (DeProspero). All three saw action in the vault lineup last season and provided depth and experience for the Sooner squad.
The Sooners return 50 percent of the 2009 lineup and will depend on newcomers to fill the void. Jackie Flanery, Mary Mantle, Melanie Root (NCAA Northeast Regional vault champion) and Sara Stone will provide a veteran base to an overall youthful lineup. All four of those athletes provide 10.0 vault values and have traditionally posted high scores on the apparatus for Oklahoma.
Newcomers will include World Championship Team member and redshirt freshman Natasha Kelley. Kelley is dynamic and consistent and has the potential to anchor this lineup. Other new faces will include a trio of freshmen including 2008 Junior Olympic National Team member Brie Olson, and National qualifiers Kayla Nowak and Bethany Neubauer. All three look to debut for the Sooners on this event during the 2010 season.
There could be a few surprises in the vault lineup this season as senior Kristin Smith is back to her full vaulting form, performing a Yurchenko full-on, pike off after a summer of rewarding training. Two other Sooner athletes, Natalie Ratcliff and Hollie Vise, are seeing good results on this event in practice as well and could break into the lineup at any time.
“There will definitely be a strong freshman influence on this event and ultimately, it will all come down to landings," said Kindler. "We are approximately nine athletes deep on vault and the lineup is likely to fluctuate during the course of the season. We expect to improve both our amplitude and execution on this event over prior seasons.”
• Final 2008 Team Rank (RQS): Ninth (49.145)
• Top Returning Scorer: Hollie Vise, 21st (9.87)
The uneven bars has seen the greatest upswing for the Sooners during their summer training. Though OU lost seniors Ashley Jackson, Jessica Kinder and Haley DeProspero from last season’s lineup, it returns five athletes with
competitive experience while adding four new bar swingers to the mix.
2008 Big 12 Champion Hollie Vise (also the 2003 World Champion on bars) is back and better than ever. The senior showcases handstand lines and impeccable form which make her an incredible asset for the Sooners.
Adding depth to the squad will be a list of Oklahoma veterans including Megan Ferguson, the reigning Big 12 Champion on the apparatus. Ferguson has one year of experience under her belt and is comfortable in the spotlight.
Keep your eyes open for much improved routines from Jackie Flanery, Mary Mantle and Melanie Root. These veterans will provide a solid base for a group of newcomers who will impress on this event.
Natasha Kelley performs her routine with ease, boasting three release elements and an “E” dismount. Freshman Brie Olson competes the unique Deltchev release and tops off her routine with arguably the most difficult dismount in the code of points, a dynamic full twisting double layout.
Freshman Kayla Nowak is no exception to this young group of dynamos. Nowak is smooth sailing on this event with a variety of release moves on her resume.
Watch for veteran Kristin Smith to step up on bars this season. Smith has not competed for the Sooners on this event since she arrived in the fall of 2006. The Oklahoma City native has shown great potential in the preseason and looks to snag a spot in 2010.
“Something that makes our team stand out on this event is the variety of elements you will see from our athletes," said Kindler. "They perform different release moves such as tkatchevs, the “Ray,” geingers, deltchevs, pak saltos and jaegers. Their dismounts include double fronts, double layouts, full twisting double layouts and combination work into double tucks. It is rare to see that kind of diversity on one team.
"However, we will need to show more maturity on this event this season. Last season, our confidence rarely matched our result. It is essential for these athletes to attack their routines. Under the leadership of Hollie Vise and Natasha Kelley, they will not only be an improved bar squad, but a lineup that will be difficult to beat.”
• Final 2008 Team Rank (RQS): Sixth (49.175)
• Top Returning Scorer (RQS): Hollie Vise, 10th (9.89)
The Sooners experienced some highs and lows at the 2009 NCAA Championships with their best performance of the day turned in on balance beam. Their final showing of the year reinforced what had been experienced all season long…a steady and confident beam team.
Oklahoma must replace 2009 Big 12 Co-Champion Haley Horton (DeProspero), known by her teammates and coaches as “the rock”, due to her dependable performances from the anchor position. OU will also need to replace Jessica Kinder and Ashley Jackson, who both saw action last season on the apparatus.
Oklahoma is led by the extraordinary threesome of Megan Ferguson (2009 NCAA All-American on beam and Big 12 Co-Champion on the apparatus), Kristin Smith and Hollie Vise. Ferguson is mesmerizing on this event as she tumbles on the beam as if it were four feet wide. Vise provides elegance and grace that is rarely matched, while Smith is an eye-catcher with her unusually calm presence and aggressive skills.
Expected to make key contributions to this lineup are Natalie Ratcliff, Natasha Kelley, Sara Stone and Melanie Root. These four complete a group of eight who will consistently compete for a place in the lineup. Ratcliff was thrown into the lineup last season when a teammate turned up ill and she solidified her spot with a 9.875 in her first collegiate beam competition. Ratcliff continued to succeed during the season and has carved a spot for herself in this year’s lineup. Kelley is known for her calm nature and steadiness, but her big skills are sure to catch your eye. Stone and Root have made enormous improvements over the summer months and are likely to be seen among the top six this season.
Candace Cindell, Brie Olson, Kayla Nowak, Nitya Ramaswami and Bethany Neubauer are prepared to step in and add depth to the squad in 2010.
“Beam has traditionally been a strong event for us and this year is no exception," said Kindler. "We feel that the athletes will perform some of the most diverse combinations in the NCAA. If there is one phrase to describe this squad, it would be ‘aggressive and certain.’ They like to compete beam like other athletes like to perform floor routines -- without limits. To these athletes, it is like watching television or walking down the street…it is that easy.”
• Final 2008 Team Rank (RQS): Seventh (49.255)
• Top Returning Scorer: Kristin Smith, 17th (9.89)
The Sooners must replace 50 percent of their floor lineup from the 2009 NCAA Championships. OU will turn to influential seniors Jackie Flanery and Kristin Smith to anchor the floor squad and attempt to replace the high scores of departed seniors Jessica Kinder, Ashley Jackson and Haley DeProspero, as well as the leadership they provided.
Flanery and Smith have three years of experience under their belt and K.J. Kindler believes there is no one better to lead the squad on this event. Flanery’s routine is highlighted by quick and powerful tumbling and energetic showmanship. Smith hits the other end of the spectrum with a smooth and original performance that leaves the crowd wanting more. Both of these athletes posted 9.9s last season.
Sara Stone and Megan Ferguson will step into the void left by the 2009 senior class. The duo embraces their own personal styles and are ready for the challenge. Stone and Ferguson both saw action on this event last season and will undoubtedly be counted on by the Sooners.
Stone is deceivingly graceful and her tumbling is strong and clean. Ferguson is a bundle of energy and a crowd pleaser.
Freshmen Brie Olson, Kayla Nowak and Bethany Neubauer will provide the Sooners with quality depth. These athletes could all be contributors in the lineup and be battling for a permanent position. Olson is potent on this event with dark music to match. Nowak will simply make you smile as she performs “no holds barred” to an upbeat toe tapping compilation. Neubauer’s attribute on this event is her sky-high tumbling and leap combinations.
Hollie Vise will be OU’s best-kept secret on this event. After three years at OU, she began training floor in the summer of 2009. She has shown great promise and is likely to see the competition floor this season.
“Our floor depth is tenfold what it has been in the past," said Kindler. "Not only has our tumbling, endurance and consistency improved, but our showmanship is out of this world. Each athlete has her own unique style that appears to match perfectly with her personality. It will be so exciting to watch the Sooners on floor this season. We are looking forward to seeing big jumps in our scoring potential on this event.”