By MICHAEL KINNEY
Mark Williams has seen some pretty special teams during his tenure at Oklahoma. Ones that were filled with future Olympic medalists, Nissen-Emery winners and national champions.
But the long-time gymnastics coach said this year’s team is different. It doesn’t have the big name superstar like it has had in previous years. However, it may be the one that is best suited to bring the program its first national championship since 2008.
“I felt that way at conference,” Williams said. “I was pretty emotional just because we had gone through a lot that week. Raymond White’s father had passed away. Another guy had a season-ending surgery to his shoulder. It was one of those things where we rallied a lot as a team to be better than ourselves in some way.”
The Sooners (18-1) earned the No. 2 seed in the NCAA Championship and will be the top seed in the first national qualifier at 1 p.m. today in State College, Pa.
“We are looking good,” senior Troy Nitzky said. “We’ve progressed the whole season. The guys are looking great. Looking to do a little bit better than we did at conference. We came out with a championship there. Looking to do better against better teams and come out with a national championship.”
The two pre-qualifying sessions each have six teams, with the top three teams in each session advancing to the NCAA finals 6 p.m. Saturday. Individual event finals will be 1 p.m. Sunday.
OU will face No. 3 Michigan, No. 6 Minnesota, No. 7 Illinois, No. 10 Nebraska and No. 11 Air Force. The second qualifier will feature No. 1 Penn State, No. 4 Stanford, No. 5 Ohio State, No. 8 Iowa, No. 9 California and No. 12 Temple.
“We are just going to have to go out there do what we’ve been trained to do,” junior Pristine Ellsworth said. “This team strives off chemistry, enthusiasm and mental toughness. With all three of those put together, that’s what’s going to seal the deal for us, I think.”
Oklahoma boasts a 9-0 record this season against the five teams in its session and has defeated every team at least once. Against the twelve teams in the NCAA Championship, the Sooners are 16-1, with their lone loss coming Jan. 19 in a second-place finish to Stanford at the Stanford Open.
But the Sooners got payback when it knocked off the Cardinal to win its 20th conference championship.
“Winning the conference championship with this group was a bit of a surprise,” Williams said. “I thought Stanford was on paper a team that would be really difficult for us. But we kept the pressure on throughout the meet and won the 20th conference championship.”
Oklahoma is now in search of the program’s ninth national championship. With the new scoring system of taking only the five best scores, the Sooners like their chances.
“A lot of it’s just going to be the will, the desire to win,” sophomore Alec Robin said. “We are going to have to fight through each routine. Everything counts. A fall will make the difference between who is holding a trophy at the end of the day.”
Olson leads OU women into NCAA Championships
Brie Olson didn’t hold anything back. When the Oklahoma senior completed her vault attempt at the NCAA Regional championships, she had a giant smile on her face and pumped her fist into the air.
Even before her score had been announced, Olson’s reaction let the crowd at Lloyd Noble Center know she knew she had done well.
“That’s a little something we call passion,” OU coach K.J. Kindler said. “They wear it on their sleeves. When they finish a routine, there is no hiding how they feel about it or how their teammates feel about it. We’ve given them free reign to express it in any way they need to express it. We like them to show emotion like that. It’s the great part about the sport.”
One of the reasons Oklahoma has been so successful over the past seven years is not just its talent. It’s the showmanship Kindler has instilled into the team. The Sooners make sure and sell every routine. Whether it was a high score or not, they have the crowd believing they had performed a perfect 10.
“You always land and finish like it was the best thing no matter what,” Olson said. “That’s what we are taught. I think that gets the judges thinking, ‘Wow, that was really good.’ They are very happy about it, so I’m happy about it.
“I think it’s pure enjoyment. I don’t think any of it is fake. It’s all real.”
While the Sooners’ exuberance has served them well in the regular season and early rounds of the postseason, it has yet to garner them a national championship.
The squad hopes that changes this weekend as the No. 2 Sooners (19-1) compete in the 2013 Women’s Gymnastics NCAA Championships at Pauley Pavilion in Los Angeles. While the team has made it to the coveted Super 6, the closest it has come to winning the title is a runner-up finish in 2010.
“In 2010, I don’t think our program had the level of respect it has now,” Kindler said. “I think when we went into nationals that year, the expectations from the outside world were lower for us even though we had the same expectations for ourselves. I think we have put ourselves in a position where we have shown all year long that we are worthy, we are good and that you need to take note this is a great team.”
Semifinal action begins today. The Sooners are in Session II, which starts at 8:05 p.m. They will be battling with No. 3 Alabama, No. 6 UCLA, No. 7 Michigan, No. 10 Utah and No. 11 Arkansas. Session I starts at 2 p.m. and includes No. 1 Florida, No. 4 Georgia, No. 5 LSU, No. 8 Minnesota, No. 9 Stanford and No. 12 Illinois. The top three teams from each session advance to the Super 6 finals at 6:05 p.m. Saturday.
The top four individuals from each session in each event from the semifinal team and all-around competition will then compete in the individual finals on Sunday at 3 p.m.
Oklahoma will face stiff competition as it chases the program’s first championship. However, they believe they bring something to the table that the other teams do not.
“We definitely focus on the artistry,” Kindler said. “We want artistic gymnastics. It’s almost a show, what we’re doing. When they go out there this weekend at nationals, I think that is going to play a huge part. They are very polished, our athletes. That shows up not only in judge scores, but in their performances. That’s something that stands out about our team.”
Senior Kayla Nowak knows how important it is to draw in the fans and the judges with their passion and excitement. It’s something the Sooners have built their brand on and hope to use to make program history.
“Our coach is really over the top,” Nowak said. “You would never know from meets, but she is way over the top in practice. Choreographing and yelling excitedly, it’s just something we are around every day and are used to. We practice it. It’s just naturally. We are more over the top than most people and it’s just kind of ingrained in us.”