By: Matt Allibone, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa- Entering the sixth and final rotation of the Penn State men's gymnastics team's dual meet against Michigan, head coach Randy Jepson refused to allow his team to relax.
While his top ranked Nittany Lions had led the second ranked Wolverines for the duration of the meet, they began the high bar clinging to just a 364.850-359.100 lead, with the prospect of their first loss of the season just a few mistakes away.
Jepson's team responded by claiming three of the top five spots in the event to not only pull away with a 437.300-430.400 victory, but to also prove they can close out a meet in a pressure filled situation.
"Every week I give the team a principle to focus on and tonight the principle was to shut the door on their opponent," said Jepson. "Going forward we've got to be able to finish and we did that tonight."
Not only did the Nittany Lions prove they can hold a lead, they showed they can do it against a team that could ultimately be their biggest competition for both the Big Ten and NCAA titles.
Although the meet was a matchup of the two highest ranked teams in the country, the squad maintained that the pressure they felt wasn't any higher than usual.
"Even though it was against a team like Michigan it was still just a regular season meet that's ultimately not going to change where we stand heading into the postseason," said senior captain Parker Raque. "We just went out there and performed the same way we have been every weekend."
The Nittany Lions got first place finishes from junior Adrian Evans on pommel horse (14.700), freshman Alexis Torres on rings (15.350), freshman Trevor Howard on vault (15.400), senior Felix Aronovich on the parallel bars (15.200), and junior Wasef Burbar on high bar (15.300).
Torres's performance was the highlight of the night, as his rings routine resulted in the first individual title of his career while his 15.000 score on floor exercise also represented a career best for him in that event.
"I went into tonight with a lot of confidence," said Torres. "I knew that I could do the routines and that I had it as long as I hit [the routine] solid and that's what I did."
Along with validating their national ranking by defeating the highest ranked team they have faced all season, Penn State showed how well they are adapting to the new NCAA scoring change that has only been in place since their dual meet against Illinois on March 2.
Despite their initial reservations about how they would adjust to having only five gymnasts compete in each event with each score counting, the Nittany Lions have yet to let the change effect their performance.
"We're definitely getting better at [the five-up, five-count format]," said sophomore Craig Hernandez. "At first we were definitely nervous but now that we have a couple [meets] under our belt we've adjusted mentally and we know we can do it now."
While both Jepson and team are proud of the performance that they gave against the Wolverines, they know they need to keep their focus, as it certainly will not be the last time they will see Michigan this season.
"This win definitely gives us confidence but we know that Michigan is going to come back fighting at both the Big Ten Championships and the NCAA Championships," said Raque. "We can't get ahead of ourselves just because we beat them tonight."
The win was extra special for not only Raque, but also his six senior teammates, Aronovich, Tony Beck, Matt Chelberg, Mackenzie Dow, Nihir Kothar and Scott Rosenthal, as it was their last dual meet at home inside Rec Hall.
For Jepson, seeing his senior class finish their final regular season undefeated is a testament to the dedication and leadership they have shown over the course of their careers.
"They have been an incredible group," said Jepson. "The heart, attitude, and work ethic from every single guy has been outstanding, and they were rewarded with an undefeated dual meet season, which is why this group stands out."