Three freshmen. Three paths. One class.

Jan. 14, 2010

STANFORD, Calif. - They came from different places, environments and for different reasons. But for the next four years, they may become a greater part of each other's lives than family. The desire of coaches is that they become family.

Such is the life of a freshman class and, in the case of Stanford women's gymnastics, its future is embodied in Ashley Morgan, Nicole Dayton, and Ming Ya Zhou.

Morgan, the daughter of the daughter of a baseball Hall of Famer, is a California girl. Dayton is Midwestern all the way. And Zhou is from the East. Make that the Far East.

Yes, talent and potential are the overwhelming reasons for their places on one of the nation's elite teams. But the ultimate goal for any coach is to create a bond that inspires teammates to fight and compete for each other as much as for university.

That's chemistry. And for Stanford, with this class, it was hardly a worry.

'It was really easy,' Morgan said. 'We all got along immediately.'

Whether intentional or not, this group seems to complement each other.

'Ming is really straightforward,' Dayton said. 'She says what she feels.'

'Ashley is girlie,' Zhou said. 'She likes pink. She's a good person, she's good to everyone. She really cares about how people feel.'

'Ming and I are opposites, but Nicole is right in the middle,' Morgan said. 'She's always smiling, she's outgoing, but she also can be shy at times, but she's not extreme in either direction.'

Their backgrounds are as different as their personalities.

Ashley is the daughter of Joe Morgan, a man many consider to be the greatest second baseman of all-time and who continues to be visible, as part of ESPN's lead baseball broadcast team, long after his 22-year big-league playing career ended in 1984.

Her father's ability to emerge from a tough Oakland neighborhood to great success has continued to inspire Ashley. In a team questionnaire, she listed her father as her 'hero' and wrote that she was able to overcome the odds because 'my father did the same.'

If she has grown tiresome about answering questions about her father, Ashley doesn't show it.

'My dad and I are really close,' she said. 'My mom says that ever since I was little, I had the same personality he had. He never pushed me into anything. He always supported me and wanted to make sure that everything I did was my decision.'

With his background, Joe can share an understanding of competition not only with Ashley, but her twin sister Kelly, a freshman soccer player at USC.

'He understands what I'm going through and definitely inspires me,' Ashley said. 'He's an excellent role model. I know he's accomplished more than I could ever hope to accomplish, but he's very very humble. I've always wanted to mimic his humility. It's something I've always admired so much and would like to bring into my life.'

Zhou's journey began in Guangzhou, China. There, while in kindergarten, she caught the eye of national talent scouts and left home at age 6 for full-time gymnastics training at a state-run training center.

She did not have to go. 'Nothing's forced,' she said. But the decision was made easier because her older brother, Jimmy, already was training to be a gymnast there.

The center was 90 minutes away. Ming, at first, was allowed to go home once a weekend and could receive visitors only on Wednesdays. After a certain time period, visits were limited to only one per month and Ming wasn't allowed to go home at all.

Even at that, her parents, because of work commitments, rarely came to visit. An aunt came in their stead.

'I was so homesick,' Ming recalled. 'I remember telling my mom, `I want to go home. I don't want to do this anymore.''

The training methods for males bordered on abuse and her parents pulled Jimmy out of the center. But, for Ming, the experience 'wasn't awful.' And after a while, she became accustomed to it and built a level of independence that is evident today.

And then, at age 8, Ming left with her family for the United States, where her father had family, settling in Framingham, Mass.

Ming knew no English, but largely learned by watching cartoons on television like 'Rugrats,' 'Little Bear,' and 'Franklin,' on Nickelodeon.

'But now I'm at Stanford!' she wrote in a team questionnaire. 'Land of opportunity, seriously.'

Dayton had what might be considered the most conventional upbringing among the three. She grew up in East Grand Rapids, Mich., a lakeside suburban community with great schools, outstanding athletic teams, and a place where neighbors knew each other. You could walk almost anywhere and wave at a familiar face.

Nicole, the oldest of five children, quickly made a name for herself in one of the most competitive regions in the country for gymnastics. She earned 'All-Star' status that allowed her to join international traveling teams just about every year.

Club gymnastics can be cutthroat, but Nicole and other area rivals became close. In some ways, that experience was a taste of what she would find at Stanford, where the sense of 'team' is the foundation of the program.

With the college season having just begun, each has fared differently. Zhou is severely limited in her training as she rehabs an Achilles tendon that she ruptured in April.

Dayton is working to break into the lineup, remains in search of her collegiate debut, and looks forward to making her mark on the program.

Finally, Morgan was simply sensational in her first meet, scoring 9.825 or above in three events at No. 1 Georgia on Sunday. Rather than be intimidated by the crowd of more than 10,000, Morgan grew 'excited,' and displayed a combination of enthusiasm and toughness, particularly on a pressure-packed balance beam routine.

Following a teammate's fall, and within range of hecklers, Morgan shut out the distractions to score a 9.85 and lead Stanford in that event. In all, her average score for three events, including the vault and floor exercise, was 9.833, the highest of the meet for anyone competing in at least two events.

The adjustment to college competition hasn't always been easy, but the friendship among them has. It seems safe to say that the Stanford women's gymnastics class of 2013 will be just fine.

-- David Kiefer, Stanford Athletics

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