A Stanford Viewer's Guide to the Pac-10 Championships

March 20, 2009

STANFORD, Calif. -

What: Pacific-10 Conference Women's Gymnastics Championships
Where: Maples Pavilion, Stanford University
When: Saturday, 4 p.m.
Tickets: Adult $8; Student/Youth/Senior $5 (all general admission)
To purchase tickets: 1-800-STANFORD

So, you're coming to the Pac-10 women's gymnastics championships. You may not be that familiar with the gymnasts, but you'd like to be entertained by the amazing athletic ability and grace that these women possess, with a splash of some good competition and drama along the way.

The following can be considered a guide to the meet from a Stanford perspective, and hopefully will enhance the viewing experience.

Some background:

Stanford is a rising power in collegiate women's gymnastics, having reached the Super Six, the equivalent of the basketball's Final Four, the past two years and four of the past seven. Stanford placed third in the nation last year, tying its 2004 team for the highest finish in school history.

In addition, Stanford has won the Pac-10 title three of the past five years and is the defending champion. But Stanford has never won back to back.

In the 22 years of the Pac-10 meet, only three schools have won: UCLA (13), Stanford (five) and Oregon State (four). Those are the favorites on Saturday. Stanford is ranked No. 3 in the nation, UCLA is No. 7 and Oregon State is No. 10.

The timing:

The meet comes at the end of a two-week break from competition for Stanford because of Dead Week and winter quarter finals. Stanford's practice Friday at Maples Pavilion was its first as a team in a week.

The past two weeks not only have been critical from an academics standpoint, but also for training. To peak for the NCAA Championships April 16-18, mid-March is the time for the last hard training push.

'What I like about this team is that they are strong mentally and strong physically,' Stanford coach Kristen Smyth said. 'They have a championship mindset in their approach and in their effort every single day in the gym.'

Stanford senior co-captain Kelly Fee said she feels that having the Pac-10s at the end of finals is good, because the gymnasts haven't had time to think about the meet and feel a sense of freedom to get away from the books.

The order:

There will be seven rotations, with four teams competing at any one time and three having a bye. Stanford begins with the vault, with Oregon State on beam and UCLA having a bye.

The goal is to outscore your opponent by even a tenth of a point during each rotation. If season average scores hold true, Stanford would come through the first two rotations (vault and a bye) ahead of both UCLA and Oregon State. Stanford averages 49.139 in the vault, to Oregon State's 49.0 on the beam and UCLA's 49.082 on the floor in the Bruins' first event.

Stanford will progress through the bars, beam and floor and has a bye in the final round while Oregon State finishes with the bars, its best event, and UCLA finishes with the beam, its weakest. But the order is staggered, meaning the three schools will have an uneven number of events completed until the end of the meet.

'At Pac-10s and nationals, it's going to take hitting 24 routines,' Smyth said. 'If you do, it creates momentum, the excitement builds off each routine, and the confidence grows.

'Also important is hitting our landings, cleaning up routines and executing at very high levels. Not only do we have to hit 24 routines, but we have to hit them to the best of our ability if we want to challenge for another Pac-10 title and move on to the Super Six.

'This team has shown they can be very consistent. Now, we just have to put the finishing touches on our work.'

The teamwork:

If nothing else, fans will remember seeing a Stanford team that loves to have fun. Few teams show more outward enjoyment at being together than the Cardinal, and that should be evident from as early as the pre-meet introductions.

'The one thing that stands out most about the team is their chemistry and they way carry themselves on the floor during a meet,' Smyth said. 'A lot of enthusiasm, high energy, very supportive, close-knit. They have a joy for gymnastics and competing and enjoying each other's company. That's something I think the fans will appreciate.'

The vault:

This event was considered to be Stanford's biggest question mark heading into the season, but the Cardinal has made this a strength, partly because of the addition of freshman Alyssa Brown, a former Canadian national champion in the event, who should vault in the sixth and final spot.

Blair Ryland, a second-team All-American in the event in 2007, will lead off. This is typical of Stanford's strategy, to lead off with a veteran who has been in big meets and can supply a strong early score that can help take the pressure off teammates.

Senior captain Kelly Fee, a 2007 first-team All-American, will lead off the bars and the beam, and senior captain Heather Purnell, will lead off the beam. She was a 2004 Olympian.

'This year, we've been able to put up a really strong lineup top to bottom,' Smyth said. 'In the past, we've had some big heavy hitters in the back, and we relied on those big scores.

'This year, we're stronger in the 1-2-3 spots, so we can come out of the gate with the first three routines and set the bar a little higher than we have in the past.'

The uneven bars:

Stanford can put the pressure on Oregon State and UCLA by coming up big on its best event, as determined by average scores. After three rotations, Stanford will have completed its best two events while Oregon State will have begun with its worst two, and UCLA will still have competed in only one event.

If Stanford can come through with big early scores, Oregon State and UCLA will have to chase.

If Fee and freshmen Nicole Pechanec and Brown can produce in the top three spots, and Allyse Ishino can bring a strong effort as she has done, that will allow the big two of Carly Janiga and Nicole Ourada to take more chances on their routines at the back end and produce higher scores.

Over the final three events, Janiga and Ourada will finish off the Stanford lineup.

The balance beam:

Though the average scores say otherwise, this should be Stanford's best event. The Cardinal is ranked No. 2 in the country on the beam and has its highest Regional Qualifying Score in this event.

Stanford is expected to line up with Purnell, Ishino, Danielle Ikoma, Fee, Janiga and Ourada. Purnell is ideal for the leadoff role because of her ability to excel under pressure.

This will be the same rotation as when UCLA competes in the vault, an event in which the Bruins lead the country. If Stanford can produce a score comparable to the Bruins, without losing much ground, the Cardinal should be in good shape.

'There's real strong character from this group that I see top to bottom,' Smyth said. 'Part of that toughness comes from the blue-collar mentality. When you work that hard, you're not willing to give up easily. You're going to fight for everything. You're going to rise up to those challenges.

'To have an entire team that way, it makes you that much stronger. So, when you're in a pressure situation, you can rise up and know that your teammates are going to be there for you.'

The floor exercise:

Stanford completes its day in the sixth rotation, and must watch the seventh rotation as UCLA finishes with the beam and Oregon State with the bars.

Fee will begin, followed by Shelley Alexander, a sophomore who has blossomed this season after competing strictly as a vaulter last year.

'Shelley has a wonderful joy about her when she competes,' Smyth said. 'You can't help but to watch her and fall in love with what she does because she has so much fun doing it.'

She'll be followed by Ikoma and Pechanec, a Czech national-team veteran who competes with a flair that's rare at any level.

'Nicole is just exquisite,' Smyth said. 'She's got a beautiful body line, her artistry is second to none, and she is a performer. She can really light up the arena.'

Janiga is a two-time All-American in this event and will be followed by five-time All-America Ourada, who will close it out. That is appropriate because this will be the final home meet for the senior, as it will be for Fee and Purnell.

In summary

Spectators are almost guaranteed to see a classic competition, with 10 All-Americans competing, five returning conference champions and some of the best teams in the country.

'We're going to need to bring a championship effort for sure to come out on top,' Smyth said. 'The field is very competitive. It should be a great meet, but tough and challenging. Definitely, the team is going to rise up for this opportunity.'

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