By Matt Allibone, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa- Even after taking college gymnastics by storm all season, Penn State freshman Trevor Howard managed to save his best performance for last.
Competing in the NCAA Championships for the first time, Howard put on a dazzling display during the floor exercise to earn a score of 15.800 and claim the individual national championship on the event.
"Right before I began I said my prayers and was just hoping to rock it," said Howard. "When I stuck my first landing, I felt great and then I just carried [the momentum] on through the routine stick by stick."
The performance, which topped Howard's previous best of 15.400, gave the Nittany Lions their first national champion on floor exercise since 1963.
Head coach Randy Jepson, who joked that he was only three years old the last time Penn State had a national champion in the event, was thrilled to see Howard win the title.
"To finally get another national champion on floor [exercise] is outstanding and I'm absolutely thrilled for him," said Jepson. "Having to come out in the NCAA finals as a freshman is a lot of pressure and he crushed [his routine]."
After a season in which he was named Big Ten Freshman of the Week a conference record eight times, Howard entered the weekend knowing he could hold his own with the country's best gymnasts.
Still, the Columbus, Ohio native said he didn't necessarily expect to finish first in an event after he was forced to miss several weeks in the middle of the season because of a concussion.
"I pushed myself after my injury to make sure I was where I wanted to be at the end of the year," said Howard. "Coming out as a national champion when there are guys out there who hit equally difficult routines is just crazy."
Competing a day after the Nittany Lions finished in fourth place in the team finals, Howard stated that he was extra motivated to perform at his highest level possible.
Adding to his fuel was the fact that four members from the national champion Michigan Wolverines had also qualified in the event.
"Today I was looking to get back at those Wolverines [for winning the NCAA team championship]," said Howard. "It felt great and I feel a lot better [on Sunday] than I did on [Saturday] night."
With the Penn State fans in the crowd at full throat, Howard had plenty of energy and excitement behind him as he took the mat.
That excitement only increased after Howard's score was announced, which sent the Nittany Lion faithful into a frenzy.
"It was great to be in Rec Hall with such a great crowd," said Howard. "There's no feeling like it and I can't explain it."
The reaction from the fans was rivaled only by Howard's teammates, who took turns mobbing him in celebration after his routine was finished.
While he may have been the Nittany Lions biggest star of the afternoon, the freshman made sure that his teammates also received their fair share of credit.
"It was awesome to see so many guys from Penn State come through on multiple events," said Howard. "To see Parker (Raque), Adrian (Evans), and everyone else was just awesome."
For Howard, the most memorable moment of the afternoon was having the opportunity to stand on the top of the podium in front of his own school's fans after being named national champion.
When Penn State's fight song was played over the loudspeakers, the freshman took a moment to let it all sink in.
"I definitely took a picture of it in my head," said Howard. "Having the banner raised behind me and being on top was an incredible experience."
Jepson, who nearly broke into a sprint to congratulate Howard after his routine, didn't hesitate to declare the new All-American as one of the most impressive freshman to come through the program in his time as head coach.
Having also qualified for the individual finals on the parallel bars and the vault, Jepson stated that he sees an extremely bright future ahead of Howard.
"We've had some great freshman over the years but there's no question that he ranks amongst [the best]," said Jepson. "He's competition savvy and he's clearly demonstrated that he has an innate ability to perform on the biggest stages."