Dec. 27, 2007
NORMAN, Okla. -- Off the heels of a program-best eighth place finish at the 2007 NCAA Championships, expectations for the 2008 OU women's gymnastics squad are sky high.
Reflection on last season was short lived, as the Sooners immediately turned their attention towards preparing for the upcoming year with the expectation of ending the season on the last night of competition in Athens, Ga., at the NCAA Championships.
OU returns eight of the 10 members who competed at the 2007 NCAA Championships, including senior Kiara Redmond-Sturms, who garnered All-America accolades in the all-around, floor and vault competition.
The 2007 season included the program's best finish ever at the NCAA Championships and 11 consecutive victories, nine of which came on the road, including an upset of then-No. 6 Nebraska in Lincoln, a feat no OU team had accomplished since 1991.
Add that experience to Kindler's first Oklahoma recruiting class, expected to immediately challenge for spots in the starting lineup, and it's easy to see why Kindler and crew enter the 2008 season with lofty expectations.
The talented lineup is highlighted by the All-American duo of Stephanie LoPiccolo and Redmond-Sturms, and Hollie Vise -- the 2003 World Champion on bars.
The `08 returnees accounted for 27 individual event titles last season, capped off by Redmond-Sturms' 17 wins. Ashley Jackson was on top of the podium on seven occasions and Haley DeProspero was victorious twice.
As the adage says, to be one of the best you have to beat the best, and the 2008 slate will have the Sooners battle tested.
"For the first time in more than 20 years Oklahoma will be hosting the 2008 NCAA Regional Championships and, by the luck of the draw, we will also host the Big 12 Championship meet as well," said Kindler. "It is rare to host two postseason competitions that hold such significance in one year."
OU starts the year with four straight road events, including a season-opening trip to the fifth annual Cancun Classic in Cancun, Mexico, on January 4.
The Sooners round out the month of January with trips to Central Michigan, Texas Woman's University and West Virginia.
The squad opens up the home portion of its schedule on February 1 when conference foe Nebraska travels to the Lloyd Noble Center for a double-dual also featuring the men's squads.
After a Feb. 9 road trip to Denver -- ranked in the top 12 last season -- the team joins the OU wrestling squad for "Beauty and the Beast" night against Big 12 opponent Iowa State at the Lloyd Noble Center.
The demanding Oklahoma schedule doesn't let up as the Sooners travel to Columbia, Mo., to face a Tigers squad that finished the year ranked 22nd.
Oklahoma hosts TWU before competing against SEC opponents Auburn and Arkansas. The Sooners celebrate Senior Night by hosting the Auburn Tigers on March. 7 before traveling to Fayetteville, Ark., the following weekend to take on the Lady Razorbacks.
A road trip against the Golden Gophers of Minnesota ends the regular season slate on March 22.
The 2008 Big 12 Championships will be held March 29 at the Lloyd Noble Center with the NCAA South Central Regional set for April 12 in Norman.
"The Big 12 champion will be crowned in Norman and the top two teams from our regional championship meet will qualify for the national championships. The goal is to put our team in the best possible position going into these postseason events and to have the crowd to back us up," added Kindler.
Athens, Ga., plays host to the NCAA National Championships (April 24-26) at Stegeman Coliseum on the campus of the University of Georgia.
Oklahoma must replace vault All-American Brittney Koncak-Schumann and Lori Winn, whom the Sooners relied on for solid scores all of last season.
The Sooners return a solid nucleus of five gymnasts who competed on vault last season, including first team All-American Redmond-Sturms who took home five event titles on the apparatus. Her top mark was a 10.0 earned against TWU, George Washington and Centenary.
DeProspero, Flanery and Jackson have posted strong scores on the apparatus and look to provide veteran leadership throughout the season.
Mary Mantle, who saw limited action on vault last season, should be a staple in the OU lineup on this event. Watch for freshmen Natalie Ratcliff and Melanie Root to immediately contribute in the lineup for the Sooners. Junior Jessica Kinder has stepped up and secured a position in the lineup after a fruitful summer of training and senior Caitlin Hinkis is prepared to compete as well.
"We are approximately eight to nine athletes deep on vault," said Kindler. "The lineup could fluctuate during the course of the season with so many 10.0 valued vaults being performed. All in all, this event should remain fairly consistent for us and there will definitely be new faces on the floor."
If the Sooners are to reach their lofty goals for the 2008 season, bars could be the determining factor. OU needs to replace two routines from last season (Brittney Koncak-Schumann and Lori Winn) while continuing to climb the ladder in the national rankings.
OU looks to improve on last season's 14th-place final event ranking, which should be bolstered thanks to the return of Hollie Vise, the 2003 World Champion on Bars, who did not compete on the event last season.
Oklahoma returns Stephanie LoPiccolo, who garnered All-America honors as the only OU NCAA finalist in '06.
The Sooners will look to experienced veterans Caitlin Hinkis, Haley DeProspero, Mary Mantle and Kiara Redmond-Sturms for leadership. All four saw action last season.
Adding depth to the squad will be Jackie Flanery, Ashley Jackson, Jessica Kinder and Vise. If Jackson snags a spot in this lineup, it will be the first time she has competed bars in collegiate competition and would open her up as a potential all-around competitor for OU.
"We have seen a tremendous push on this event during the pre-season," said head coach K.J. Kindler. "The athletes are really challenging themselves and, as a staff, we have found ourselves with an abundance of options. It is quite unusual because we had originally assessed this event to be an area needing more depth. Their hard work and dedication has definitely paid off here and we should see big dividends during the season."
Finishing the `07 season as the fourth best team in the nation on beam, a strong cast of talented gymnasts must replace Koncak-Scumann and Winn who combined for 11 titles last season.
Oklahoma is led by the trio of DeProspero, Redmond-Sturms and LoPiccolo, who all posted career-high scores last season. DeProspero ended the `07 campaign as the 13th best gymnast in the country on beam last season with a regional qualifying average of 9.88. Redmond-Sturms turned in a top three finish on Beam at the Big 12 Championships while LoPiccolo boasts experience as an Australian national team member.
On the horizon are key contributors Vise, Jackson and Smith. All three competed for the Sooners last season and gained valuable experience. Vise was flawless, hitting 100 percent of all routines performed in 2007. Jackson turned in the top score on beam for OU at the National Championships while Smith provides an excellent repertoire of skills and an amazing presence.
Ratcliff, Kinder and Gina Lesko are prepared to step in and add depth to the squad.
"Beam was certainly a great event for us last season," said Kindler. "We have lost two athletes to graduation, but look at the confidence we have gained as a team. These athletes are the steadiest of any I have ever practiced with and their poise and stature as they perform is not only calming, it is remarkable. I feel completely at ease every time these athletes are in a pressure situation."
All-America honoree Redmond Sturms leads Oklahoma on the floor exercise after posting a career-best 9.925 on the event last season. She is expected to anchor the floor squad for the second consecutive season.
DeProspero and Jackson both posted 9.9s and provide veteran leadership to a promising line-up of supporting cast members.
Flanery, Smith and Kinder will undoubtedly round out the top six on this event. All three have shown growth on this event during the off season and are expected to post big scores for the Sooners.
Hinkis, Ratcliff and Root look to break into the lineup and provide support in the alternate position.
"The floor squad is captivating, powerful and energetic," said Kindler. "The tumbling passes of the top six athletes boast 15 "D" level tumbling passes of 18 possible. The level of difficulty on this event has increased and I believe they are truly finding a way to improve their presentation."
"The routines are more polished and the athletes appear more comfortable performing," Kindler added. "This event has the potential to be our highest scoring event." "However, our supporting cast members will definitely need to turn up the heat to provide more depth for the team."