ou would think an athletic program would be satisfied having won 10 NCAA championships. Not so with Oklahoma men’s gymnastics.
Seven of those national crowns have come under the guidance of coach Mark Williams, but in his constant quest for more championships, Williams wanted more depth and more opportunities for more gymnasts. As a result, this would bring more titles.
Williams got his wish.
Since Williams arrived in 2000, the OU men have never placed lower than fourth at the NCAA Championships and claimed national titles in 2002, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2008, 2015 and 2016. In that six-year gap between championships (2009-14), Williams had to settle for two third-place finishes, followed by four straight runner-up finishes. Even though the NCAA increased the number of participating athletes per team from 12 to 15, Williams was seeking an even bigger talent pool.
"It’s been really good for the rest of my team to watch these guys struggle every day and work as hard as they do and be an example to them about persistence and that will to be prepared.”
- Head Coach Mark Williams
Williams approached Athletics Director Joe Castiglione and was granted permission to add a club team, where walk-ons could hone their skills to perhaps someday be good enough to join the school’s NCAA squad. “I had to tell him we were getting beat by sheer numbers,” Williams recalled of his meeting with Castiglione. “My 14 guys couldn’t hold up to other team’s 22 guys.”
Since Williams was granted a feeder program, the Sooners have continued to feast on collecting crowns.
Not only will OU seek its third straight NCAA championship later this month, the school’s club team is seeking a three-peat at this week’s National Association of Intercollegiate Gymnastics Clubs (NAIGC) championship, which is being held Thursday through Saturday in Columbus, Ohio.
In their previous four NAIGC appearances, the OU club finished fourth nationally in 2013, second in 2014 and then claimed back-to-back crowns in 2015 and 2016.
“We needed individuals who aren’t maybe the best athletes, but can do well on one or two events and help us,” said Williams, who this year has 18 gymnasts on his NCAA roster and 17 on the club team. “Starting a club team allowed me to tell guys, ‘Hey, if you don’t make my roster, you can compete with the club program and compete against these other club teams in Texas and nationally, and you’ll still do gymnastics in college.’ We’ve built it up to where they’re the club national champions, which is amazing.”
This year’s team might be the most dominant ever assembled at OU. The Sooners went 26-0 each of the last two seasons, they haven’t lost a meet since the 2014 national championships and they consistently have pulverized opponents this season. The Sooners currently rank first as a team on every event and have the top-ranked individual on all six events.
“I know we have a good team,” Williams said, “but I don’t understand some of the other teams not being as good. Toward the end of the year, everybody comes back together because the end of the season is kind of a rallying point.”
This season’s only scare came with a 432.300-432.050 victory at No. 2-ranked Stanford on March 4. OU was without sophomore Yul Moldauer, who was busy winning the 2017 AT&T American Cup in Newark, N.J., while competing for the U.S. Senior Men’s National Team. “They had a really good meet,” Williams said of Stanford. “We didn’t have one of our better meets, although part of the reason we didn’t have a good meet is they were kicking our butts and keeping it close. We got out of there pretty lucky that we stayed ahead of them in the score.”
With only 6.3 scholarships at his disposal each season, Williams is stuck with a financial jigsaw puzzle that’s missing several pieces. Williams said he offers five or six scholarships “that are pretty significant, though they’re not 100 percent.” What little is left become “scraps to other guys. Trouble is, I need to have 15 or so good guys to put on the floor. So do I have enough to go to this kid’s house and honestly say we can make it worth your while to come? A lot of times we’re out of money and I’m recruiting walk-ons. You’ll have an opportunity to make the team if you’re good enough.”
Rather than cutting walk-ons loose, Williams is now able to send them to OU’s club program. “Every year, I’ve had at least two guys from the club program make it onto my team,” Williams said. “A lot of times it takes a year or two years of developing, either physically or correcting some of the technical mistakes, or being in a consistent program where they can help us. Rather than them quitting gymnastics, this is a great opportunity for them to not only keep going but to have that carrot out there.”
The greatest walk-on in OU history was Michael Squires of Edmond North High School, who was only the third NCAA gymnast ever to become a three-time national champion on still rings. After winning his first national title on rings, Squires no longer was a walk-on.
“Mike Squires not only exceeded my expectations, but I don’t think anyone in the gymnastics community ever saw that coming,” Williams recalled. “When he first came in, my wife (Susan) looked at him and said, ‘Who is that?’ I told her, ‘That’s just some kid from Oklahoma who’s probably not going to make the team.’ I didn’t think he would make the roster his freshman year, but he kind of sneaked in. Seriously. He wasn’t that good on any event, but he had a build that made me think, ‘You could get strong in this event,’ and he was like, ‘OK, I’ll get good on rings.’ ”
Michael Squires is one of just three gymnasts in NCAA history to win three straight national titles on still rings.
This season, former club members Jacob Maloley and Brian Schibler have joined the team’s NCAA roster. Both are walk-ons in their junior seasons. Maloley’s specialty is still rings while Schibler competes on pommel horse.
Those same two apparatuses happen to be the events in most need of specialists.
“To make our team, the two places you can do that is on pommel horse and rings because it’s a little harder for an all-around guy to be great on those two events,” Williams said. “Both of those guys bring a special energy. They’re not going to have a huge impact on this team, but the fact they made this team is pretty phenomenal. I love we have kids like that who don’t give up. They recognize the odds are against them, but once they’ve been given the opportunity, they take advantage of it. It’s been really good for the rest of my team to watch these guys struggle every day and work as hard as they do and be an example to them about persistence and that will to be prepared.”
Schibler is a brainiac, a double-major in chemical biosciences and Spanish who is pursuing a career in medicine and carries a 4.0 grade point average. He was a 2014 Academic All-American, a National Merit Scholar, a 2015 Rita H. Lottinville Prize recipient and also works part-time as an EMT.
Schibler was one of seven OU students to earn the 2017 Dr. Gerald Lage Academic Achievement Award from the Big 12 Conference, which carries these requirements: “In order to be eligible for the accolade, student-athletes must have lettered at least once in their career while maintaining residence at their institution for at least one academic year. The honoree, which can only be recognized once, should have 100 hours of earned credit with a cumulative grade-point average of 3.80 at the time of the nomination.”
“I had no clue it was coming,” Schibler said of earning the prestigious Lage award. “My coach and teammates started congratulating me and I was like, ‘What for?’ ”
Schibler was a member of the 2015 NAIGC national champion OU club team and was called up to the NCAA team in midseason last year, an achievement that rarely happens. He has competed on the pommel horse four times this season and will join the Sooners in their final two competitions – the MPSF Championships this Saturday at Cal-Berkeley and the NCAA Championships on April 21-22.
"He had a bunch of guys from the ROTC show up. One of the officers that’s in charge was there and Jake did an awesome routine. I haven’t seen a kid so excited. It was great for my whole team.”
- Head Coach Mark Williams
Schibler is listed at 6-foot-1, but his father told him he might be closer to 6-foot-3.
“With pommel horse, it’s pretty much the only event in gymnastics where having some extra height can benefit you,” Schibler said. “You have longer arms and that helps raise you off the horse. There are some aspects that still make it tough. You’ve got a lot of weight moving around and you have to account for that strength and endurance aspect, and that’s probably my weakest aspects on pommel horse. My endurance is probably what I’ve had to fight for the most.”
Williams said of Schibler: “He’s not the prototypical gymnast by any means, but he has a pretty good circle on pommel horse. He’s really weak for as big as he is, so there was no question he was not going to do any of the other events. For an entire year when he was on the club team I’d say, ‘Brian, show me a half-routine. Show me five skills in a row.’ He was kind of shy or just not confident about what he was doing. Three months would go by and he had not showed me anything. I would watch him, he was getting a little better, but he was still kind of floundering.
“In his second year, I said, ‘Brian, you’re actually going to have to start showing me stuff now’ and he started to. He didn’t compete at all last year, but this year’s he’s gotten to the point where he’s built a pretty good routine for what he does.”
The perpetually mobile Maloley is a Marine ROTC member, a recipient of the ROTC physical fitness award, the ROTC Trident Society Award and the ROTC Leadership Award.
“The cool thing about Jake is he’s one of those gung-ho guys, he supports everybody and he’s really loud,” Williams said. “We had run-off days when they all did routines and he stuck his dismount. He was super excited and I said, ‘All right, I’m going to put you in.’ He had a bunch of guys from the ROTC show up. One of the officers that’s in charge was there and Jake did an awesome routine. I haven’t seen a kid so excited. It was great for my whole team.”
During the scorching days of summer. Maloley will run 1.8 miles one way to practice at the Sam Vierson Gymnastics Center while carrying an extra 55-60 pounds in his backpack. During the season, when OU varsity team members have finished their 1:45-4:30 p.m. daily practice, Maloley often stays an extra 60-90 minutes while the club team practices.
“It helps keep me mentally sharp and I wanted to make sure I worked on my mind as much as I’m working on my body,” explained Maloley, a “Yessir” kind of kid. “I want to keep my cardio and leg strength up, be completely well-rounded so I can be the best Marine officer I can be.”
Schibler said of Maloley: “Jake is absolutely one of those people who will not stop. His biggest problem is our coaches basically have to tell him, “You need to stop before you tear your body apart” because he is that hard of a worker. There’s only so much your body can take on rings. You have to stay healthy.”
As for trying to keep pace with Schibler, Maloley has been able to pull off a 4.0 GPA the last two semesters. “I will say my overall GPA is not as high as it should be,” Maloley admitted. “I can’t quite keep up with Brian, but he’s a genius, so I’m not beating myself up too much.”
Maloley is majoring in Arabic and hopes to someday become a diplomat. And where exactly does one go to serve in the ROTC, learn Arabic and swing on still rings in their spare time?
“OU was basically one of the only schools in the nation where I could do all three,” Maloley said. “It really was the perfect fit. It was where I was meant to go.”
Maloley said his career goal is to be commissioned in May of 2018; serve as an infantry officer on the ground; attend the Marine Corps linguistic school to become as fluent as possible in Arabic; then work as a Marine officer in foreign embassies. “Working with foreign militaries is what I’d love to do,” Maloley said. “That is kind of my cumulative plan, but we’ll see where life takes me.”
One playful perk of having Maloley on the roster is as an ROTC member, he is allowed extra baggage on flights at no additional charge.
“Oh, two free bags for Jake. That just saved us some bucks,” Williams acknowledged.
“I think with United (Airlines) I get three bags free,” Maloley joked. “But this being my first year on the team, me and the other freshmen have to carry all the bags. We get stuck with it.”
The Sooners have ample depth in still rings, so right now it’s doubtful Maloley will compete at the NCAA championships. Things could change, however.
“I told coach the other day, ‘I’m going to keep on battling until the very end. I’m going to do everything I possibly can to get a spot in the lineup for NCAAs,’ ” Maloley said confidently. “Fingers crossed, but I’d like to say, ‘Yessir, I’m going.’ ”
Coincidentally, this year’s NCAA Championships will be staged at West Point, N.Y., home to Army cadets and the United States Military Academy.
How will a Marine ROTC be received at West Point? “I think I’d be all right,” Maloley said with a laugh. “They might call me a ‘Jarhead’ or something, but I think I can take it.”