Gymnastics: Season Preview

Jan. 1, 2010

2010 Season Preview
Four straight trips to the NCAA Championships. Two straight runner-up finishes at the Pac-10 Championships. Three returning gymnasts that combined to win the vault, uneven bars and floor exercise titles at the conference championships. The reigning Pac-10 Gymnast of the Year.

Clearly there are plenty of reasons to have high expectations for Oregon State in 2010. That's fine with the leader of the Oregon State gymnastics program.

'We always have high expectations for ourselves,' head coach Tanya Chaplin said. 'This is a program full of dedicated gymnasts. They work hard throughout the year, in and out of season, they make the right decisions in both the academic and athlete arena.'

Despite the wonderful accomplishments of 2009, this is a new season and the 2010 Oregon State gymnastics team has plenty of obstacles to overcome. Six seniors graduated and two underclassmen retired including a pair of All-Americans in Jami Lanz and Tasha Smith. With departure of that group goes 10 out of 24 routines performed at the NCAA Championships last year.

The returners began the preparations to step up as soon as the 2009 season ended. Bodies were rested and rehabilitated. New skills have been added and old ones have been cleaned up in the ultimate effort toward perfection.

The eight returning gymnasts have been bolstered by a recruiting class that was recently named the No. 3 class in the country by CollegeGymFans.com. Leading the impressive class is two-time junior elite National Team member Makayla Stambaugh who dominated Level 10 the last two years, winning back-to-back national titles in the all-around. Joining her is Kelsi Blalock, who has three straight top 10 all-around finishes at the national championships, Melanie Jones, who was an alternate to the 2008 Australian Olympic team, and Leilani Alferos, who has also had impressive showing at the Level 10 championships and who the OSU coaching staff believes has her best gymnastics ahead of her.

The four freshmen join a solid core that includes four-time All-American Mandi Rodriguez (twice on vault, once on floor exercise and all-around), two-time All-American Jen Kesler (twice on bars) and Pac-10 co-champion Leslie Mak (bars, tied with Kesler). Add in the consistency of All-Pac-10 selection Laura-Ann Chong (beam), Whitney Watson and Stephanie McGregor and there is a lot of proven talent. The complete return to health of Becky Colvin (Achilles) and Olivia Vivian (shoulder, foot, illness) will further enhance the depth and should more than replace those 10 missing routines.

Vault
Depth is always a concern on every event and in recent years the one event that the Beavers have struggled to gain considerable depth has been the vault. But it's not as if the cupboard is bare for Michael Chaplin as he seeks to once again build a high scoring lineup.

'There is certainly a lot of talent on the vault,' Michael Chaplin said. 'With a smaller squad there are fewer bodies on every event, so there is a smaller margin for injuries and illness. But this is a very talented group and they've improved a lot since they arrived in September. As a group they've been ahead of schedule throughout the fall and we've got a lot of 10.0 vaults that are meet-ready.'

Chaplin will build his lineup around senior Mandi Rodriguez, a two-time first team All-American on the vault. Rodriguez finished fifth in the Individual Event Finals of the 2007 NCAA Championships and was seventh in 2009 and is clearly one of the best vaulters in the country.

Also returning from the 2009 vault lineup are senior Whitney Watson, junior Becky Colvin and sophomore Stephanie McGregor. Colvin, who is now two years removed from an Achilles injury, has had an outstanding offseason and is expected move further toward the back end of the lineup. Watson, who is returning from offseason ankle and foot injuries, scored 9.80 or better seven times last year including a career-best 9.875 at the Pac-10 Championships.

With at least two lineup spots wide open there will be competition from less experienced gymnasts. Freshmen Leilani Alferos, Kelsi Blalock, Melanie Jones and Makayla Stambaugh are each extremely capable on the apparatus and all four will likely see action during the season. Junior Jen Kesler, who was a Junior Olympic national champion on the vault but is returning from an ankle injury, will also be in the mix.

Sophomore Leslie Mak, who hasn't vaulted in three years, has returned to the event and has taken to it quickly. Before the 2010 season is done, Mak could have an impact as well.

Uneven Bars
In 2009, his first season as an assistant coach at Oregon State, John Carney, who primarily coaches the uneven bars, inherited two All-Americans. After a season of building further depth on one of the team's best events and the loss of only one gymnast from the regular lineup in 2009, Carney's lineup will again be tough to crack.

Sophomore Leslie Mak, who only missed one routine in 2009, and junior Jen Kesler, a two-time All-American, tied for the Pac-10 title on bars last year and offer the most experience at the back end of the lineup. But nothing is a given with this lineup with several other talented gymnasts in the picture.

'Once again we have exceptional depth on bars,' Carney said. 'I expect serious competition from eight or nine gymnasts every day in the gym and it wouldn't come as a surprise if there are several different lineups from meet to meet - whether it is different gymnasts competing or changes within the lineup. There are a lot of options and a lot of talent and we'll use the best lineup on any given night.'

The depth begins with seniors Laura-Ann Chong and Mandi Rodriguez, each of whom has been in the bars lineup for the past three years. Sophomore Olivia Vivian, who performed as a bars specialist for the Australian Olympic team in 2008, is also back and healthy. Whitney Watson, a senior, will also be in the mix after 'hitting' all 12 of her bars routines in 2008. Sophomore Stephanie McGregor has also shown marked improvement throughout the offseason, but especially in recent weeks and is also pushing for consideration for the lineup.

Two freshman, Leilani Alferos and Makayla Stambaugh, are also making their presence felt in the practice gym and further muddle the lineup picture. Stambaugh was the 2009 Junior Olympic national champion on the bars and is positioning herself toward the back half of the lineup.

Balance Beam
Tanya Chaplin's balance beam team always seems to be the deepest event for the Beavers and 2010 will be no different. Eleven out of 12 gymnasts work the event on regular basis including three - Laura-Ann Chong, Leslie Mak and Mandi Rodriguez - that competed on the beam in every meet. In addition, Jen Kesler performed on the beam 12 times.

'We're always very proud of the talent and depth we're able to put forth on the beam,' Tanya Chaplin said. 'This group is not only talented and deep, but it is also experienced. Even our younger athletes have performed at the highest levels of competition and I expect they will rise to the occasion. The talent that is in our gym everyday is a great motivation to each gymnast to continue to work her hardest in order to be in that lineup when the season begins.'

Chong, an All-Pac-10 performer in 2009, is the most accomplished beam worker returning to the Oregon State lineup. But all four newcomers - Leilani Alferos, Kelsi Blalock, Melanie Jones and Makayla Stambaugh - have shown talent and improvements in practice and intrasquads and all four could be in the mix to see action.

Olivia Vivian appears vastly improved in the preseason while Whitney Watson is just returning to the apparatus after recovering from injury.

Floor Exercise
The OSU gymnasts traditionally refer to their rotation on the floor as 'Showtime.' The concept should hold for another go-round in 2010. There will be new faces and new routines, but as the fans of the Orange and Black have come to expect the floor routines will be choreographed to perfection and the tumbling will be dynamic.

'I'm very excited about this group of gymnasts on this event. Floor is always an area that our gymnasts and fans look forward to.' Tanya Chaplin said. 'The athletes and staff have worked hard to increase our difficulty on floor. There is incredible competition on this event and all of our competitors are fighting for a spot in the lineup.'

First team All-American Mandi Rodriguez, who finished tied for sixth at Individual Event Finals at the NCAA Championships in 2009, will be expected to lead the floor team. Two other gymnasts are back from last year's lineup in sophomores Leslie Mak and Stephanie McGregor, who will both compete for continued time in the lineup. In addition, junior Becky Colvin, who competed on floor as a freshman, has returned to the floor after not training the event last year and looks set to claim a spot in the lineup. Senior Laura-Ann Chong and sophomore Olivia Vivian are other veterans that have shown improvement on the event and appear destined to begin the season in the lineup.

Again, all four freshmen are excellent on the floor exercise and will vie for action. Makayla Stambaugh, Leilani Alferos and Kelsi Blalock are destined to become fan favorites with wonderful routines. Melanie Jones, who is recovering from a shoulder injury is currently concentrating on vault and beam, is an explosive athlete with big tumbling skills and could become a factor in the floor lineup before the season is over.

The Beavers' begin the season Jan. 8 with the 30th annual Salbasgeon Suites Invitational against No. 13 Illinois, Air Force and Alaska-Anchorage.

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