NORMAN, Okla. - OU narrowly missed winning the fourth national title in school history during the 2001 season, however with the national championships being held at the Lloyd Noble Center in April 2002, hopes are high that the Sooners can keep the trophy in Norman. Head coach Mark Williams is entering his third season at the helm of the program, and if the past two years are any indication of what's to come, Sooner fans should be prepared for big things in 2002.
In his first year as coach, Williams led the team to a fourth-place national finish after ending the 1999 season 10th. And last year, he had Oklahoma ranked first in the nation for much of the season, only to finish just short of Ohio State, who coincidentally, hosted the 2001 NCAA Championships.
"It was a little disappointing to be ranked number one and then miss the title by such a small margin," said Williams. "But we're not too upset. We were fourth in 2000, then second in 2001. As long as we keep moving up, my guys have nothing to be ashamed of."
There was certainly no shame in the ten All-Americans the program boasted in 2001, a school record and national high, and of the six gymnasts who garnered national honors, four of them return in 2002.
Senior Ryan Hillyer hopes to repeat his outstanding performance on the horizontal bar, this time with a new nickname around the gym.
"I call him All-America now," said Williams. "He made the most of his opportunity at national championships where he had the best three routines of his life, right in a row. More than anyone, he's earned it."
Junior Brett Covey was once a walk-on with the squad, but is now looking to repeat as an All-American on the still rings. Junior Daniel Furney was an All-American in both the parallel bars and pommel horse competition in 2001, and is being looked upon as the potential leader of this year's team.
"All along," said Williams, "I've said that Daniel has been a backbone of this team. I'd like to think he'll be our leader and the guy we can count on to finish up an event and come back with a strong score."
Josh Landis was among the national leaders in the floor exercise and pommel horse events and is being counted upon to put up high scores this season.
In addition to the returning All-Americans, sophomore Jock Stevens is a rising star not only on OU's Norman campus, but on the national level as well. A former member of the U.S. Junior National Team, Stevens competed at his fourth straight U.S. National Championships in early August in Philadelphia, Pa. He finished third overall in the floor exercise competition at the national event, bringing home a bronze medal and high expectations for 2002.
"Jock is just one of my OU athletes that also has Olympic aspirations," said Williams. "He's drastically helped himself as an all-arounder and want them to come here seeking national championships, but also to make international teams. He's helping keep Oklahoma gymnastics at the forefront of all levels."
The Sooners will greatly benefit from the involvement of assistant coach Xiao Yuan, as well as second-year assistant Guard Young, who competed at the World Championships in Ghent, Belgium, in early October. The two bring an inordinate amount of knowledge and experience to the gym, giving the student-athletes a chance to learn from the best.
"Xiao has brought probably an element to our program that no one else is collegiate gymnastics is getting," said Williams. "Since not a lot of information comes back from China and since he helped them win the gold medal at the 2000 Olympic Games, they have to be doing something right."
"Guard is a playing coach, who is out there training with the team and doing some of the same gymnastics they're doing. He made the U.S. Team for the World Championships, which is like making the Olympic team, only in a non-Olympic year. He's been asked to do so much for us and he's just been awesome."
Another familiar face will be helping to lead the team this season in Steve Van Etten, who was an All-American in three events during the 2001 season and will now serve as a team manager.
"He knows what it takes to get the job done," said Williams. "He'll be able to say some things to the guys and get them prepared to do well."
OU definitely is among the nation's elite programs this year and should be able to compete with anyone they face.
"I'd definitely put us in the top three," said Williams. "Time will tell whether that's true, but the team I have coming back should stack up fairly well against anyone. But as long as we do the job we're capable of doing, it doesn't matter what anyone else is doing."
The squad worked diligently all summer on increasing its level of difficulty and is keeping its focus on improving on last year's finish, rather than being satisfied with it.
"We're still hungry to make the last jump to national champions," said Williams. "The whole team was here all summer, doing voluntary workouts and trying to get better. We're back to square one and anything before this season doesn't count. We have to refocus ourselves and know that to reach our goals, it's going to be up to us.
"The fact that it will be in our arena, with our fans, that can't do anything but help. There's certainly an advantage to staying in your own environment and when you have people rooting you on, the competitive juices really flow. Just like I felt Ohio State benefited from hosting last year, we'd like to see that kind of magic come back here to us."
There's been a lot of "Sooner Magic" taking place recently... could there be more on the way?