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Gymnastics Youth Movement Paying Dividends

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By Tom Shively, Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa - The college adjustment period appears to be an unfamiliar concept to the Penn State men's gymnastics team's freshman class. This group has now won seven Big Ten Freshman of the Week awards between them, by far the most of any school in the conference. 

Favian Valdez leads the way with four Freshman of the Week awards on the season, including the first two weeks of the season. For him, it's still special every time he wins despite the sustained success. 

 "It's always great getting [the award]," Valdez said. "It hasn't gotten old yet and hopefully I can win some more." 

He has a legitimate claim to more as well, as his numbers so far as a Nittany Lion have been more than worthy of recognition. He has five of the top 10 all-around scores posted by Penn Staters this year as well as having two of the top-four finishes on vault.

He's coming off a hot performance at Navy, picking up second-place finishes in pommel horse and vault, finishing only behind teammate Dominic DiFulvio in the latter event. His vault score of 14.100 is a career high for Valdez. 

Not to be outdone, Sam Zakutney has shined as well for Penn State, picking up his third Freshman of the Week award last Monday for his performance in the win at Navy. It's Zakutney's third time winning the award, and the second time in the last three weeks. 

The Canadian won the high bar and parallel bars events and notched a third-place finish in floor exercise. He was also the all-around champion in the team's previous meet against Ohio State on Feb. 11.

 "It's an honor, to not even be an American and still be considered one of the best freshmen in the Big Ten," Zakutney said. "It's just crazy and nothing I really could have hoped of achieving."

The young guns have certainly grabbed head coach Randy Jepson's attention from the start, and he's not at all surprised that they continue to produce at a high level every week.

 "Number one, they're savvy competitors. They've been experienced in the junior ranks at the junior level. Everybody is kind of pulling their own weight. I'm really pleased with what I've seen in work ethic and production on the floor," Jepson said.

Success naturally generates a higher level of competition throughout the team as well. Seeing the freshmen class thriving motivates the upperclassmen to work harder each and every day while the freshmen continuously learn from the upperclassmen around them.

Support will continue to be key as the regular season nears its conclusion and teams begin to gear up for Big Tens and the NCAA meet.

The Nittany Lions will look for back-to-back wins this weekend as they head to Lincoln, Nebraska for a tri-meet against Iowa and host Nebraska. The Nittany Lions have already seen the Cornhuskers this season at the West Point Open in January. The meet is set to begin at 5 p.m. ET. 

Penn State then has a week off before returning to competition in their final two meets against Iowa and Michigan. Both meets will be hosted by Penn State at Rec Hall.

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