Jan. 5, 2009
NORMAN, Okla. -- The Sooners welcome back 11 members from last season’s group that clinched OU’s first Big 12 title since 2004, after recording an undefeated regular season.
Returnees from last year’s squad that placed a program-best-tying eighth at the 2008 NCAA Championships include All-Big 12 award winners Haley DeProspero, Jackie Flanery, Ashley Jackson, Melanie Root and Hollie Vise.
Also returning in 2009 after earning accolades a year earlier are Mary Mantle and Kristin Smith, who were both honored as Big 12 Event Specialists of the Week in 2007.
This season also marks the final send-off for veterans Jessica Kinder and Gina Lesko, while other returnees include sophomores Candace Cindell and Natalie Ratcliff.
OU gymnastics fans also will have their first chance to see OU’s freshman class of Megan Ferguson, Natasha Kelley, Sara Stone and Hailey Wagner in collegiate action in 2009.
Baylor transfer Julie Kramer joined the Sooners over the summer and will challenge for a spot in the vault lineup.
Leading the way is reigning Big 12 Coach of the Year K.J. Kindler, who posted record-breaking numbers a year ago in her second season at the helm of the Oklahoma women’s gymnastics squad.
All told, the Sooners made their mark atop the record book for wins (28), consecutive victories (21), wins to start a season (21), regular season winning percentage (1.000), home winning percentage (.917) and regular-season road winning percentage (1.000).
In addition, the Sooners posted their second consecutive season with at least 21 wins, marking the first time in school history that the team has recorded back-to-back 20-plus-win seasons.
The slate includes matchups with four squads that competed at the NCAA Championships last season, including road meetings with Florida (Jan. 9) and Alabama (March 13), both of which advanced to the Super Six team finals a year ago.
The reigning Big 12 Champions welcome Arkansas, Brown, Minnesota, Missouri, West Virginia, TWU and Illinois State to the Lloyd Noble Center for regular season competition.
“We are very excited to embark on our 2009 adventure,” said Kindler. “In addition to our challenging conference schedule, we will face great teams from all across the country, including top-10 teams from ‘08 in Arkansas and Denver and Super Six qualifiers Florida and Alabama.”
After opening the season Friday, Jan. 9, in Gainesville, Fla., in a dual meet with the Gators, the Sooners travel to Denton, Texas, for a matchup with Texas Woman’s University on Jan. 17. The Pioneers concluded the year as USAG Collegiate National Champions in 2008.
OU opens its home campaign on Monday, Jan. 26, against SEC foe Arkansas. The Sooners edged the Lady Backs 196.750- 196.625 last season in Fayetteville, despite a program-tying high score from the home team. The two squads also squared off in the opening session of the NCAA Championships in April, as the Sooners defeated Arkansas 196.075-195.825.
OU returns to the Lloyd Noble Center on Friday, Jan. 30, to close a two-meet home stand in a matchup with Minnesota. It will be “Beauty and the Beast” night at the LNC as OU and the Golden Gophers will share the floor with the Sooner wrestling program.
Oklahoma opens the month of February with back-to-back road trips, facing Big 12-rival Nebraska on Feb. 8, and the Denver Pioneers on Feb. 14.
Brown, Missouri and West Virginia travel to Norman on Feb. 20, before the Sooners make their first of two trips to Ames, Iowa, for a dual with Iowa State (Feb. 27). The Cyclones also host the Big 12 Championship on March 21.
TWU and Illinois State close out the home portion of the Oklahoma schedule on March 6. The Sooners square off with perennial power Alabama and North Carolina in Tuscaloosa, Ala., on March 13 to conclude the regular season slate.
NCAA Regional competition is scheduled for April 4 at six campus sites, while the NCAA Championships will be hosted by Nebraska in Lincoln, Neb., April 17-19.
“We are enthusiastic that Nebraska is hosting the NCAA Championships in April,” added Kindler. “We have goals to represent the Big 12 Conference at the event and we feel strongly that our competition schedule will prepare us for this premier meet.”
The following is an event-by-event breakdown of the 2009 Sooners.
• Final 2008 Team Rank (RQS): 10th (49.180)
• Top Returning Scorer (RQS): Mary Mantle, 61st (9.845)
While Oklahoma led the NCAA South Central Region last season with a vault regional qualifying score (RQS) of 49.180, Kindler and the Sooners expect that average to rise in 2009. Depth will prove the biggest factor for improved scores on the apparatus this season as OU lost only one vaulter to graduation (Kiara Redmond). The combination of several veteran vaulters and a talented crop of newcomers pushes the Sooner tally to a minimum of 12 vaulters competing with a 10.0 start value.
The boost in numbers gives the staff an opportunity to choose the most dynamic vaults for scoring and consistancy purposes, allowing Kindler the ability to test fresh faces on the apparatus as well as challenge potential all-arounders to earn their starting spot.
Top returners on vault include Ashley Jackson, Haley Deprospero, Jessica Kinder, Jackie Flanery, and Mary Mantle, while the group of newcomers includes powerhouses Natasha Kelley and Sara Stone. Both freshmen are expected to fill the void of Redmond.
Other veterans on the scene include Melanie Root and Kristin Smith, who are both competing yurchenko fulls. Root saw action on vault in five meets last season and is looking for a more consistent position in the lineup this spring. Hailey Wagner, Julie Kramer and Natalie Ratcliff have shown great improvements in the gym and will have the opportunity to contribute when called upon. Kramer, a transfer from Baylor University, was a power tumbler and trampolinist and has made the transition to collegiate gymnastics.
“Our goals on vault are to improve both our scoring potential and ‘sticking’ of our vaults,” said Kindler. “We expect our ranking to rise on this event due to a combination of increased potential and added depth over last season.”
• Final 2008 Team Rank (RQS): 10th (49.100)
• Top Returning Scorer: Hollie Vise, 28th (9.865)
New faces will be seen on this event after the graduation of three strong contributors last season. The Sooners will need to replace Caitlin Hinkis, Stephanie LoPiccolo and Kiara Redmond, who all completed their eligibility in 2008.
The trio will be replaced by World Championships silver team medalist Natasha Kelley, sophomore Melanie Root and freshman Megan Ferguson.
Kelley will compete arguably the most difficult bar routine in the NCAA this season, boasting four release moves (including an E value release immediately connected to a D valued release) and an E valued dismount.
Root has redesigned her routine to highlight a sky-high tkatchev and a textbook double-front dismount.
Ferguson, a surprise on this event, has learned numerous skills (jaeger and full-in dismount) and combinations (giant full to overshoot handstand) and has solidified her position in the lineup.
Veterans to watch for include World Champion and 2008 Big 12 event champion Hollie Vise, Haley DeProspero, Jackie Flanery, Ashley Jackson, Jessica Kinder and Mary Mantle.
“Our goal on bars is simple...hit, hit, hit,” said Kindler. “In preseason workouts, we saw a huge increase in our hit percentage. The athletes are also performing more difficult dismounts which was one of our training goals.”
• Final 2008 Team Rank (RQS): Sixth (49.195)
• Top Returning Scorer (RQS): Haley DeProspero, Fifth (9.900)
Coach Kindler preached consistancy on beam heading into the offseason and the veterans listened, as the group proved to be very seasoned on this event throughout the training period.
Last season, Haley Deprospero sealed a “perfect” record on balance beam, sticking 14-of-14 routines. Teammate Hollie Vise was not far behind, missing just one routine the entire season.
Jessica Kinder also proved to be a key member of the Sooner beam lineup last year, stepping in to replace the injured Ashley Jackson at Missouri and hitting every routine the remainder of the season.
These three athletes provide a solid foundation on the apparatus.
Expect freshmen Megan Ferguson and Natasha Kelley to be slotted in
as immediate contributors in 2009. Ferguson, crowned the Junior Olympic National Champion on beam in 2006 and 2007, will truly mesmerize with her unique routine and difficult tumbling. Kelley, who will compete a standing full twisting salto on the apparatus, will certainly impress all onlookers with her international experience and steadiness in the event.
Other veterans who will see action include Ashley Jackson and Kristin Smith. Jackson has increased her difficulty and ends her routine with an impressive double tuck salto while Smith added a three-part flight series to her routine, while continuining to make an impact with her exceptional dance.
Depth will also be provided by returnees Candace Cindell, Jackie Flanery, Natalie Ratcliff, Melanie Root, and freshman Sara Stone.
”I felt that last season a slight misstep here and there kept us from being a really good beam squad,” said Kindler. “During our training, we have preached a high hitting percentage while working on increased difficulty in our routines.”
• Final 2008 Team Rank (RQS): Sixth (49.315)
• Top Returning Scorer: Jackie Flanery, 30th (9.875)
One of the strongest events for the Sooners a year ago, floor excercise appears to be another key assest for Oklahoma in 2009 after losing only Kiara Redmond to graduation from last season’s lineup.
Returning crowd favorites include senior Ashley Jackson and junior Jackie Flanery, who will once again thrill the crowd with their showboating choreography and quick and powerful tumbling. Flanery, ranked second among all returning Big 12 gymnasts on the apparatus with a season RQS of 9.875, has upgraded her passes from last season in search of a Big 12 title on this event.
Other returners include Jessica Kinder, Haley DeProspero and Kristin Smith. All three are expected to be staples in the lineup for OU.
Smith, noted for her long lines and unique dancing abilities, will be solid, while DeProspero and Kinder plan to end their routines with double salto dismounts - tucked and piked, respectively, which will set them apart from the competition.
Freshman Natasha Kelley provides a punch at the end of the lineup with a sky-high double Arabian as an opening pass and a double pike to close her routine.
Other contributors will include Sara Stone, Megan Ferguson, Mary Mantle and Melanie Root.
“We have worked tirelessly on increasing our skill level on this event over the training period,” said Kindler. “Heading into the season, we feel as though we can be a top-5 team in the country on floor.”