Under head coach Mark Williams, the University of Oklahoma men’s gymnastics team has consistently put together a balanced squad on each apparatus to contend for the NCAA Championship. The 2005 edition of the Sooners is no different as Williams’ team sports depth across the board with returning scorers and fresh talent on every event. In the preseason coaches poll, OU was ranked No. 1 for the third time in the past four seasons.
“Potentially, we have a real good team and it is nice to be recognized by the other coaches,” said Williams, “but we have to be careful that we make the season a continuous build avoiding dropouts in scores. The direction we hope to focus on this season is no different than any other and that is to contend for a national championship.
“We might not always put our best team together (talent wise) for each competition but we will make sure we have a team that works together to bring us along to our goal of contending for a conference and an NCAA title.”
Leadership should be a strength as seven seniors fill the OU roster. Michael Gehart and David Henderson headline the list as the Sooners’ team captains in 2005.
“With David being an All-American in the past and having worked the all-around for our team in last couple of years, he will be a leader on and off the floor,” said Williams. “Michael, our other captain, is also a solid performer and an emotional center for this team. He should provide the motivational lift we need. Both of them will do a good job in providing the team with the proper direction.”
Some other seniors who should contribute in a big way include two returning All-Americans from last season, Josh Gore and Brian Trause, both honorees on the parallel bars.
“Josh is an All-American both academically and athletically,” commented Williams. “It is needless to say that Josh has been real solid throughout his career and Brian has been a constant in the program as well. These four leaders (Henderson, Gehart, Gore and Trause) will provide a lot of scoring power for the team.”
In addition to the deep senior class, OU has a nice mix of juniors and under classmen. Among those is the lone returning All-American, junior Jamie Henderson. Jamie Henderson is part of the dynamic brother duo (David) for the Sooners. Jamie is a two-time All-American on the still rings and will lead the Sooners on that event as well as possibly becoming a big contributor in all six events for OU.
“Jamie will be a big impact performer by being either an all-arounder or close to it,” said Williams. “After winning All-America honors last season on the rings, he has the potential to lead this team on that apparatus as well as the high bar and pommel horse.”
The newcomers are the next area that will give OU a lot of support and added depth. Jonathon Horton and Taqiy Abdullah-Simmons come into the program with high expectations, having competed at the 2004 U.S. Olympic Trials.
“It is very rare for seniors in high school to reach that level of gymnastics at such an early age,” said Williams. “I expect them to provide a lot of scoring for our team. “This team is pretty balanced in every event. I think if we had to pinpoint a weakness it might be on floor but I expect that event to get stronger as the season progresses. We have a nice mix of experience with the number of seniors on the team and a lot of potential with the freshmen.”
Mentioned as a possible weak event for the Sooners, Williams will need solid contributions from seniors Dave Iammatteo and David Henderson on the floor exercise. In addition, Williams will look for added depth from juniors Jamie Henderson, James Myers and freshman Jacob Messina. Horton and Taqiy Abdullah- Simmons will be expected to provide high scores as well.
“David was really strong on the floor at NCAAs and David is real consistent,” commented Williams. “Horton and Taqiy are great floor workers and we expect to fill in the rest of the lineup with Gehart, Jamie, James and Jacob (Messina) to provide some depth on that event.”
An expected strong event for OU, the Sooners return most of the pommel horse team from last season. Among those are Gore, Trause, Jamie Henderson and sophomore Brian Carr.
“All of those guys were at the top of their game either at the conference meet or at NCAAs,” said Williams. “Besides those four guys, we expect Horton and Taqiy to be solid even though it is not their best event.”
That lineup should provide some high and consistent scoring for the Sooners on the horse. David Henderson will also fill in here while Messina and senior Mubarak Abdullah-Simmons will possibly add some depth in the horse lineup.
Traditionally one of the stronger events for OU over the years, the still rings team should return to form in 2005 after some struggles last season. The Henderson brothers will be the featured gymnasts on the event. Both Jamie and David have earned All-America honors on two seperate occasions on the apparatus in their collegiate career.
“We could be very good on rings this year and better than last year where we struggled at times,” commented Williams. “The Hendersons were All-Americans last year. Kyle Fernandez is back from injury and he is a solid on this event as well.”
Some other Sooners expected to round out the lineup on rings and provide some additional scoring power are Horton, Gehart, Mubarak Abdullah-Simmons, Taqiy Abdullah-Simmons and Messina.
Two of the Sooners best vaulters from 2004 return this season, Iammatteo and David Henderson.
“Dave tied to qualify for event finals at the NCAA meet and Dave Henderson had one of the biggest vaults at that same meet,” commented Williams. “And once again our newcomers (Taqiy and Horton) are good vaulters and those four guys could be the strength of our team.”
In addition, Jamie Henderson is working on a new vault this season and could slip into the lineup. Myers was also part of the vault team last season at times and should contribute along with Mubarak Abdullah-Simmons and Messina.
During the 2004 season, Gore was ranked in the top five in the nation all season on the parallel bars. The coaching staff will look to Gore to lead OU on the parallel bars in 2005. Last season, Gore finished as the MPSF Champion on the apparatus and was an All-American at the NCAA Championships. Gore is not the only Sooner expected to make OU’s parallel bars one of the nation’s best. OU returns another All-American from last season, Trause. Williams also expects Horton and Taqiy and to immediately step in on the event.
“The two freshman are exceptional gymnasts on the apparatus,” said Williams. “And when you combine them with two returning All-Americans, it should make for a very solid lineup on that event.”
Also looking to make an impact for the team this season on the parallel bars are the Hendersons, Gehart and Mubarak Abdullah-Simmons.
OU had one of the best high bar teams in the nation last seaon and Jamie Henderson and Gore bring proven talent to the Sooners’ lineup in 2005. Horton is a solid gymnast across the board, but, according to Coach Williams, best showcases his talent on the high bar.
“I think the presence Horton brings is invaluable,” added Williams. “His high bar routine is world class. He is very exciting to watch with the energy and difficulty he displays on the high bar.”
In addition, Taqiy Abdullah-Simmons, Gehart, Myers, David Henderson will provide a lot of depth on the event
The 2005 season will open in typical fashion for OU with the Rocky Mountain Open, pitting the Sooners against host Air Force Academy and Iowa on Jan. 14-15.
“The Rocky Mountain Open normally gives the team an opportunity to see where they are in terms of its competitive readiness,” said Williams. “It gives a lot of guys an opportunity to participate in the lineup and gives the coaches an idea of who can contribute on each event.
“As we go through the season, we will build up toward the conference meet and then the NCAA Championship. The Michigan meet (Jan. 22) in Ann Arbor will be our first big challenge since they were fifth at the NCAA meet last season. I am sure they will be tough at home.”
The Sooners then return home and compete against Air Force on Jan. 28 inside the Lloyd Noble Center, before meeting Nebraska on Feb. 13 in Oklahoma City. The following week, OU travels to Nebraska and Minnesota.
“After our trip to Minneapolis, we face another tough meet when Ohio State comes to town on March 5,” said Williams. “As always, we expect them to be a really good and it should make for an exciting competition to watch.”
OU then concludes the regular season with another probable-top 10 team at home, Iowa, before hosting the 2005 MPSF Championships on March 25-26.
“We look forward to having five competitions in front of our home fans this season, finishing that with the MPSF Championships at the Lloyd Noble Center,” said Williams. “Being one of the top teams in the country after the conference meet will be a goal of ours going into the NCAA Championship.
“I don’t want to bring this team along too quickly because the new guys are not used to the length of a season and what it takes to qualify for NCAAs,” said Williams.
“To some extent, the seniors have a good understanding of how the progression of the season works, with the scores peaking at the end of the season. However, we will look for high performances throughout the year that will position us near the top of the rankings. Hopefully those scores will put us in a position to compete at the NCAAs with a high qualifying score.”
The 2005 Men’s Gymnastics NCAA Championships will be held in West Point, N.Y., on April 7, 8 and 9. There, the Sooners will look to win their third NCAA title in the past four seasons and the program’s sixth national championship.