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Gymnastics: Second-place finishes spur men, women to qualify for nationals

Following a fourth-place finish in the Pac-12 Championships in which the Stanford women’s gymnastics team put up its best score of the season with a 196.825, the Cardinal was looking to make a statement at Regionals as the team tried to qualify for the NCAA championships for the fifth time in six years. Facing five other teams, including a very strong Oklahoma team, the Cardinal faced a daunting task.

The regional competition is among the most pressure-packed tournaments all year, as it determines whether or not teams will qualify for nationals. However, Stanford was able to channel this pressure into success, as it posted its second-best score of the season with a 196.675. The team finished second in the group, behind only Oklahoma (197.025) and just beating host Illinois (195.725) for the final qualifying position.

Junior Nicole Dayton (above) and the Stanford women's gymnastics team qualified for NCAAs by finishing second at Regionals. (SIMON WARBY/The Stanford Daily)

Starting on floor, the team scored a 49.075, led by freshman Pauline Hanset’s 9.875. Freshman Ivana Hong and senior Nicole Pechanec both put up 9.850s to support Hanset’s effort. While having freshman participants perform so well is not typical of most teams, it is nothing new for head coach Kristen Smyth and the Cardinal.

“From the beginning of the season, the freshman class came in and really contributed, and not just in competitions,” Smyth said.

Moving to the vault, Stanford kept up its strong performance by earning a 48.950. Senior Alyssa Brown led the effort on vault with a 9.900, earning her the individual victory in the event. It was her third individual victory of the season, but her first on vault (she won on beam twice before). Brown’s season was plagued by injuries, but she has made a comeback to be one of Stanford’s strongest competitors in most recent competitions. Smyth, however, is used to Brown’s “inspirational comebacks,” and expected nothing less of the senior. A 9.825 by Hong also helped the Cardinal stay within striking distance of Oklahoma heading into the third round.

On bars is where the Cardinal really made its statement, putting up a 49.400, tied for its season-best in the event. Stanford won this event handily, and its 49.400 was the second-best team score in any event behind Oklahoma’s 49.450 on floor. As has been the story all season, Pechanec was magnificent on bars, earning a 9.925 and the individual victory in the event. In fact, one judge gave her a perfect 10, a very rare and impressive feat for college gymnasts. Brown and freshman Sami Shapiro nearly matched Pechanec’s score, as they each scored a 9.900, a season-best score in the event for both of them.

Heading into the final round down 0.500 points to Oklahoma and up 0.675 to Illinois with two qualifying spots on the line, the Cardinal had to make sure it posted a strong final score on beam as it tried to solidify its nationals position.

When Pechanec, one of the team’s stronger competitors on beam, fell and earned just a 9.175 as the second of six competitors in the event, the pressure mounted on the four teammates behind her to pick up her slack with a spot in nationals at risk.

But when the pressure got to be its highest, the Cardinal responded, as none of Pechanec’s four teammates scored below a 9.800 to seal the team’s spot at nationals. Sophomore captain Amanda Spinner led the way with a 9.900, which earned her a four-way tie for the individual victory in the event, while sophomore Shona Morgan put up a 9.850. Freshman Becky Wing scored a 9.875 to lead off the event, an important position for such a young competitor. Wing has handled the added pressure with extreme confidence throughout the entire year.

When it was all said and done, the Card had earned a spot in nationals on April 20-22 with Oklahoma. Smyth described how proud she was of her team: “The way they fought the entire meet, stayed poised and confident throughout it all, it was very inspiring.”

Heading into nationals, Smyth gives her team a good chance of winning, as long as it reduces its errors and executes its routines.

“It’s a hitter’s meet. As long as we hit our routines, we should move on. We all know what we’re capable of.”

Smyth believes the season has followed its plan extremely well, as the squad started out slow and picked things up as the season progressed. Ranked 10th of 12 teams in nationals, Stanford will have to have a season-best performance in order to come home with the national title.

And while the Cardinal women were securing their chance to compete for an NCAA title, the third-ranked Stanford men’s team finished second in a four-team field at the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation (MPSF) Championships, with a score of 352.100, placing behind second-ranked Oklahoma (355.600) but ahead of No. 7 Cal (345.950) and No. 12 Air Force (335.950).

Starting off on floor, Stanford got out to an early lead with a score of 60.950. Junior Eddie Penev earned the individual title with a 15.850, while redshirt sophomore Paul Hichwa finished fifth overall in the event (15.100) and redshirt junior Jordan Nolff and sophomore Cale Robinson tied for eighth (15.000).

The Cardinal fell to second behind Oklahoma with a 56.750 on pommel horse, led by sophomore Chris Turner’s 14.750 and redshirt junior Gabriel Alvarado’s 14.600.

Junior James Fosco earned the Cardinal’s second individual victory of the meet with a 15.300 on still rings, while Nolff’s 14.750 and Penev’s 14.500 helped the Cardinal earn a 58.800 in the event. However, the team still trailed Oklahoma as it headed into the fourth round.

Penev scored a 15.350 on vault, good for his second individual victory of the night and Stanford’s third, while redshirt freshman Sean Senters tied for third with a 13.000. The Cardinal earned a team score of 59.450 in the event to help cut Oklahoma’s lead.

Redshirt junior Cameron Foreman got second overall on parallel bars with a 15.250, and even with four other top-10 finishers in the event, Stanford’s deficit to Oklahoma grew to 1.600 points as the sixth and final round started. Hichwa’s 14.400 on high bar helped the Cardinal earn a 58.750 in the event, but the effort was not good enough to make up Oklahoma’s lead.

Although the Sooners won the MPSF Championships, Stanford will see them again as it tries to defend its national title on April 19-21 in Oklahoma.