By Matt Allibone, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa- While the Penn State men's gymnastics team has started off their season strong with victories in their first three meets, this past weekend gave a handful of gymnasts a different kind of challenge and experience.
Going from the comforts of Rec Hall to the bright lights of Las Vegas, six of the Nittany Lions competed in the 2013 Winter Cup Challenge, a two-day competition that took place last week at the Las Vegas Sports Center.
Competing against the top gymnasts in the country, both collegiate and professional, Penn State performed admirably. Five Nittany Lions advanced to the finals, while registering eight top-ten event finishes tying with Michigan for the most by any school in attendance.
"I think this event shows that we're pretty deep," said head coach Randy Jepson. "I think we raised some eyebrows a little bit, so hopefully we'll keep this up."
Leading the way for the Nittany Lions was sophomore Matt Felleman, who finished in ninth place in the all-around competition with a score of 82.750 to highlight the group of Penn State finalists that included senior Parker Raque, senior Mackenzie Dow, sophomore Craig Hernandez, and freshman Trevor Howard.
Felleman, who shown in particular on the high bar, where he finished fifth, expressed his excitement at getting to compete against numerous Olympians and other high ranking gymnasts instead of just other college student-athletes like he's accustomed to.
"It's great to compete against former Olympians and to see what they can do," said Felleman. "I'm starting to get used to going against those guys but it's still a thrill."
Team captain Parker Raque, who finished fifteenth overall in the all around with a score of 81.200, added how competing against such accomplished gymnasts increased the pressure for himself and his teammates to perform well.
"It's much different than an NCAA meet because you're going against guys, who are in a sense better than the field that you normally see," said Raque. "It's a little more nerve racking but it makes you want to earn your place out there."
The biggest adjustment that the weekend presented for the Nittany Lions was the prospect of competing without the rest of their team in full force.
Only having five of their fellow teammates with them caused a significant difference in the decibel level, according to Felleman.
"It was much quieter during the meet without having the rest of the team to cheer us on," said Felleman. "Having six of us there did help a little bit, but it was still a lot different."
Although the weekend was a much different experience than what they are used to, both Raque and Felleman feel like everyone proved a lot about themselves with their performances.
Having already showed that they can compete with the best the NCAA has to offer, the Nittany Lions now have the validation of having succeeded against the best in the country.
"Going out there and performing well absolutely makes you feel validated as a gymnast," said Raque. "Looking at the results afterwards and getting to stand up there with some of those other guys gives you a great sense of pride."
One other aspect that made the weekend special for Raque was getting to see some of his younger teammates display the skills that he has gotten to see on a regular basis.
"It really gives you an idea of the potential that some of our guys have," said Raque. "Seeing a guy like (Matt) Felleman finish top ten and almost make the national team is awesome."
For Jepson, the weekend was a great way for him to see just how far his men have come under his tutelage.
His only hope now is that they are able to use the confidence they gained at the Winter Cup to carry them throughout the rest of the season.
"I think this experience will give them some confidence knowing they went out against some top guys and really competed," said Jepson. "We've set a good tone thus far and our guys are pretty ambitious, now we just have to take it day by day and keep getting better."