By Madeleine Balestrier, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - As sophomore gymnast Sam Zakutney returns from his slate representing Canada at Canada Elite in early February, sophomore Stephen Nedoroscik and freshman Brennan Pantazis will get their turn to represent the Blue and White and United States gymnastics this weekend, as they travel to Las Vegas, Nevada to compete against other elite Americans in the coveted Winter Cup.
"We've been training really hard and are ready to rock it out at Winter Cup," Nedoroscik said.
After he secured a spot to compete in last year's United States Championships, Nedoroscik signed and sealed his first opportunity to prove his pommel horse dominance at the 2018 Winter Cup.
"Well it's pretty huge because there is only two of us going out this weekend," Nedoroscik said.
Nedoroscik's roommate and travel companion, rookie Pantazis, will be competing in the all-around. As a new edition to the Nittany Lions this year, Pantazis impressed and qualified for this upcoming meet through his dynamic all-around performance during the first meet of the 2018 campaign.
"Brennan...qualified through...West Point Open this year," head coach Randy Jepson said. "They take the top three all-arounders from each meet around the country. Five different meets and he qualified in."
Just as Zakutney returned to the birth place of his gymnastic dreams in Canada, Pantazis' gymnastics career will come full circle as he intertwines his Penn State training with his Silver State gymnastic roots in Nevada.
The two impressive and mature underclassmen have a number of daunting tasks ahead of them as they compete amongst the most elite gymnasts in the country and as they look to fill the shoes of past Nittany Lion gymnasts who have had the honor to compete in such a highly coveted event. Last year, Penn State's Leroy Clarke, Dominic DiFulvio, Michael Burns and Favian Valdez represented the Blue and White at the Winter Cup.
"It's all the best guys in the country, it's not just the best guys in college," Jepson said. "So, you have the guys who have competed at the World Championships for the USA this past fall. Those are our best guys so you get a good measuring stick to where you are with the best."
As the 2018 Winter Olympics forge ahead, Nedoroscik and Pantazis will get their own taste of Olympian company as they compete against the likes of 2016 Summer Olympians Sam Mikulak and Alex Naddour.
"They will be ready to go," Jepson said on his student-athletes. "Gymnastics is one of those things where you are in a field of some really good guys, but you really compete against yourself."
Since the Winter Cup is a two-day competition, the young gymnasts only have one day to impress in order to qualify for the second day of competition; their performances on Thursday will determine their access to Saturday's events. The stakes continue to grow as a second day of competition will help their qualifying chances for other national competitions and events down the road.
"If you qualify for the second day you automatically qualify for the US Championships so you don't have to go through that qualification process again for another meet," Jepson said. "So, it's nice to be able to do that but it's challenging there is fewer spots this year than there have been in the past. The national team is smaller now by a little bit and so that means you know that those spots are really very coveted."
The goals are set high for the Nittany Lions.
"My goal is to win," Nedoroscki said. "Realistically, just to place enough to get podium."
As the entire Penn State men's gymnastics team continues to train and build upon their victory against the Ohio State Buckeyes last weekend, two Nittany Lions will look to carry that momentum into another high stakes competition across the country.
"I was really happy with the mental approach from our guys," Jepson said. "They were really fierce and tough. We've been talking about being poised and they showed that's just kind of part of who they are now."