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Gymnastics: Women fourth, men fifth at NCAAs

After a thrilling regional competition in which the Stanford women’s gymnastics team barely qualified for NCAAs, the Cardinal entered the national tournament ranked 10th out of 12 teams competing. Though the team faced an uphill battle, head coach Kristen Smyth knew that, if her gymnasts could successfully hit their routines, they could compete with anyone in the country. She was right.

Stanford was led by freshman Ivana Hong and sophomore captain Amanda Spinner on the balance beam and freshman Samantha Shapiro on uneven bars, all of whom scored 9.900 in their respective events to help the Cardinal to its first score above 197 in two years and its second-highest score ever at nationals. By finishing in the top four of their events, they also earned first-team All-American honors as well as the chance to compete in the individual competitions on Sunday.

The national competition is divided into two groups of six teams, with three from each group moving onto the final Super Six round. With the lowest score on the afternoon coming by way of a 196.550, Stanford had to have a top-notch performance to qualify for Saturday’s Super Six. It did just that, putting up a season-high 197.125 to advance, barely beating fourth-place Oklahoma, who was a top-three national finisher the past two years, by a mere 0.200 points. Finishing ahead of the Cardinal was UCLA (197.400) and Utah (197.200), two familiar Pac-12 opponents.

Stanford also had four competitors qualify as second-team All-Americans by finishing in the top eight in their events: senior Alyssa Brown and Hong on vault (9.900 each), sophomore Shona Morgan on bars (9.875) and senior Nicole Pechanec on floor (9.875) and all-around (39.325).

Going into Saturday’s Super Six competition, the Cardinal had already far surpassed expectations. The team was never ranked within the top 10 all season long, and the Super Six broadcast on ESPN went so far as to call the Stanford season “a true Cinderella story.” However, the Cardinal was not content with settling at sixth place, as it wanted to make an even bigger statement.

Though the team was proud of its 197.125 effort on Friday, it raised the bar even higher on Saturday by posting a score of 197.500, its best championship score ever. The mark earned the team a fourth-place finish, its fourth top-four finish since 2004. Alabama finished first (197.850), followed by Florida (197.775), UCLA (197.750), Stanford, Utah (197.375) and Arkansas (196.300) in a competition consisting of only Pac-12 and SEC teams.

The story of the day was Hong, who competed in all four events for the first time all season and didn’t disappoint. Highlighted by a 9.975 on vault (her best of the season and tied for second best in the competition behind a perfect 10 by UCLA’s Vanessa Zamarripa), Hong scored a 39.475 in the overall competition, the best all-around score for Stanford this season. In her first competition on bars of the year, she scored a 9.875.

Junior Nicole Dayton also had a career performance on Saturday, tying her career-best 9.950 on vault to help lead the team to a 49.550 score in the event, its second-best vault score in school history. In its final meet, the senior class elevated its performance. Brown received a 9.925 on vault and a 9.900 on bars, while Pechanec recorded a 9.900 on both floor and bars.

However, though their team competition was done, the Stanford gymnasts still had more to settle, as Spinner, Hong and Shapiro all had work to do in the individual’s competition. Shapiro led the way, finishing with a 9.900 on the uneven bars to earn herself second in the entire competition and becoming only the second Stanford competitor ever to finish within the top two in the event. Hong and Spinner tied for fourth on the balance beam with a 9.875 to cap off a truly incredible season for women’s gymnastics.

The Stanford men had a very similar weekend, astonishing or a team so badly marred by injuries all season long. Fielding just a 10-person team entering the final weekend, the Stanford gymnasts knew they would all have to be on their game in order to make a statement in their attempt to defend their national title.

First, however, they had to earn the opportunity to defend their crown, as they had to get through the field of six teams on Thursday in the qualifying meet.

The Cardinal posted a score of 348.500, just good enough to qualify for Friday’s competition. Thursday’s meet was highlighted by the work of junior Eddie Penev, who led the team in typical fashion. His 15.750 on floor earned him second in the event, while his 15.450 on vault gave him the individual victory. His overall score of 87.150 was good for second in the entire competition. Other notables were redshirt freshman Sean Senters on vault (15.250) and redshirt junior Cameron Foreman (15.100) on parallel bars.

On Friday, the undermanned Stanford team had the daunting task of protecting its national title, a task that the team was ultimately unable to handle. The team finished with a team score of 352.650, earning Stanford a fifth-place finish behind Illinois (358.850), Oklahoma (357.450), Penn State (354.800) and Cal (353.000). Though this is just the first time in seven years under head coach Thom Glielmi that the men’s gymnastics team has finished worse than third, his entire team will return next year to try to reclaim its throne.

Penev, however, dominated Saturday’s individual competition, as he earned the national championship in both floor and vault. These two first-place finishes gave him three total national titles in his career, as he won vault as a freshman. Foreman, Senters and redshirt sophomore Paul Hichwa also earned All-American honors to wrap up a successful season for the Cardinal.