Recently in Men's Gymnastics Category

By Tom Shively, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - There comes that bittersweet point in every season that it's time to say goodbye to the student-athletes who have meant so much to a program during their careers. Come Saturday, it will be that time for six Penn State men's gymnastics seniors, as they compete at Rec Hall for the final time in their careers. 

Leroy Clarke Jr., Franz Card, Dominic DiFulvio, Joseph Boyle, Christian McSwain and Jeremy Munn will all take the home floor for one last ride against the Iowa Hawkeyes before moving on to bigger and better things. 

This weekend gives the guys a chance to look back on their years as Nittany Lions, many of them appreciating all Penn State has done for them in their time here.

"I will miss the people the most," Clarke Jr. said. "Without the people I've met on my journey here, it wouldn't be as special as it has been. I've had some of my best memories and lessons learned from the people I have met through this university and I look forward to building on the relationships that I've started here."

"I'd definitely say [my favorite part of Penn State] was the brotherhood," Munn said. "Going up and the pressure builds, and then you hit your set and turn to the bench and your team is there cheering loud for you and is just as pumped for you."

The guys also shared some of their favorite memories from Penn State, many including the Big Ten championship won by the team in 2015 but many more about the camaraderie and relationships built up by these young men as they journeyed through the roller coaster of college life. 

"Mine would have to be my first time competing at Rec Hall," Card said. "I competed on high bar for the team and it was just a great feeling immersing myself in the brotherhood after and kind of being more a part of the team." 

"Being in front of the home crowd and being able to hear everyone cheering and being in front of our friends and family," DiFulvio said. "It's an amazing opportunity to be able to have, and you don't get to have that every day."

"My favorite memory gymnastics wise was when we won Big Tens at home," McSwain said. "My favorite memory school wise was the 2017 THON pep rally. I am really going to miss the friendship and brotherhood of this team." 

Maybe not as vocal as in years past, the Nittany Lion seniors still found a way to be heard during competition, including a plethora of awards and honors such as earning the aforementioned Big Ten title two years ago. Clarke Jr. is the most recent to rack up an award, earning the National Gymnast of the Week honor just last week. 

"Every group is tough, they're all just special in their own way," head coach Randy Jepson said. "This group was a little more soft-spoken, but they were so together and they did everything asked of them. That's why they improved and got so much better." 

This final home meet serves as one last chance for the seniors to put on a show in front of the home fans while building momentum for the postseason, and they are certainly relishing the opportunity to do so. 

"It's definitely an important note heading into postseason," DiFulvio said. "That's something that we really want to do."

"It's definitely a personal goal of mine to finish strong and have a good memory of my time here as a Penn State gymnast," Card said. 

"It's always a lot better to end on a good note and it's a lot more fun when you can nail your set and go back to the bench with your head held high," Munn added. 

One thing these Nittany Lions will not miss is the course load, as Boyle is looking forward to finally being done with organic chemistry (although he will miss the school spirit and sense of community).

As far as future plans go, the paths for these guys go through many different areas. Card and Munn both hope to continue their gymnastics careers and head to the University Games this summer in Chinese Taipei. 

Whether or not this is the end for each individual senior, it's been one heck of a ride.

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By Tom Shively, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa - The outcome wasn't always a certainty, but the Penn State men's gymnastics team was able to outlast Michigan at Rec Hall, winning 409.2-405.3. The Nittany Lions struggled in the early going, but they were able to find their groove in the end and pull out their first Big Ten home win.

Penn State dug themselves a hole early, as the Nittany Lions had two slips in the pommel horse, their very first event.

"We really struggled on pommel horse, which is unfortunate because we are really good there," head coach Randy Jepson said. "We hoped to get some distance on Michigan and that didn't happen." 

Nonetheless, the Nittany Lions showed resiliency when they needed it, finishing pommel horse with the top two scores, posted by Leroy Clarke and Colin Coates.

The strong momentum continued as Penn State, despite trailing after three events, began to find stride later in the meet.

"One of the things we've been teaching this squad is learning how to put your foot on your opponent," Jepson said. "The last three events, they really did that. They came through and we only had one hit that we missed in the last three events. Especially on high bar, and we had three great sticks to wrap that up. Great finish." 

One event that stood out in the turnaround was the rings, as the Nittany Lions tallied the top three scores in the event from Dominic DiFulvio, Clarke, and Chris Sands. DiFulvio won the event, finishing with a 14.400 score and one of the most consistent performances he had put together all season.

"That was a big stepping stone since that's the event we were down by a point or two," DiFulvio said. "We needed to get a big rings score and that was big. We're going to just keep that momentum throughout the rest of the year." 

Freshman Sam Zakutney put in another strong performance as well, winning two events. Zakutney tallied a 14.200 on parallel bars and a 14.300 on floor exercise. Zakutney has been hitting on all his routines at home in the last few meets, as this performance backs up an all-around title that he earned last time in Rec Hall against Ohio State.

Saturday wasn't just about the competition, as the 2007 national championship team was in attendance to witness the victory and celebrate the 10th anniversary of their achievement. 

"We've been told plenty of stories that happened with their team, so it was really cool to see Matt Cohen and those guys," DiFulvio said. "It's really inspirational. Those guys went through a lot during their season that they won that championship. To have them being here to cheer us on is huge for us. I was able to speak to Matt Cohen a little bit, and it was really awesome to do that." 

Interacting with the national championship team allowed the current Penn State gymnasts to pick up some positive advice going into the final few weeks of the season.

"[Cohen] said always keep your head up and always stay humble," DiFulvio said. "I've kind of had that mentality, so hearing him say that, it's really nice to hear since that's the mentality I've been having." 

DiFulvio and the rest of the Lions certainly kept their heads up this afternoon, and they look to carry the momentum through the rest of the year. They host Iowa next weekend in the final meet of the regular season before heading to the Big Ten and NCAA championships.

By Tom Shively, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa - Saturday will be a special day at Rec Hall, as members of Penn State's 2007 National Championship team will be on hand to celebrate the 10-year anniversary of their achievement. That year was the most recent of 12 NCAA Championships brought home by the Nittany Lions, the highest mark in the nation.

The championship meet was held at Rec Hall that year, meaning the Nittany Lions were able to win a title on their home floor, something they accomplished only one other time. 

Head coach Randy Jepson held the same position in 2007, winning one of his three national championships in his time at the helm of Penn State. To him, the 2007 team holds a special place among his best squads. 

"I think back right before the meet in Rec Hall, sitting back in the women's volleyball locker room having confidence in my guys and knowing in about three hours we were going to be national champions," Jepson said. 

A brunch will be held before the meet, allowing all the team members to get together and catch up on how far each has come in the decade since they hoisted the trophy. The coaching staff will share some stories as well. 

One impact the 2007 team has also done since their championship run is help bolster the Penn State program, paving the way for younger athletes to come to Happy Valley. They, along with the 2000 and 2004 championship teams, returned the glory to Penn State gymnastics, allowing for some more big time talent to come here.

Four Nittany Lions earned All-American awards that season, headlined by Tommy Ramos, the Puerto Rican who was an All-American in every year at Penn State. He was joined by Vladi Klurman, Casey Sandy, and Nick Virbitsky. Sandy was the anchor of the pommel horse team, which was ranked No. 1 throughout the season. 

A notable name who has come through the program since then is Trevor Howard, who won an NCAA title in 2013 on the floor exercise in his freshman season. Howard would go on to have a very successful career as a Nittany Lion, and is currently training to hopefully compete in the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan. 

 As far as the current team is concerned, seeing the 2007 team and understanding the victories that they had could go a long way in helping this team make a run at a national championship. Seeing that success can play out in the way that it did that year and seeing those guys in person right in front of them could certainly help these young Nittany Lions understand he magnitude of what they are competing for. 

For the freshmen especially, who haven't yet had a chance to be around the program for an entire season and have not had any NCAA postseason experience, this could give them an opportunity to talk to some of the guys that made the run and understand what it takes to win in the postseason. 

Nonetheless, a stellar weekend lineup is in store for the team, capped off with the meet against Michigan. The meet is set to start at 3 p.m. at Rec Hall and is one of the two remaining Penn State home meets.


By Tom Shively, GoPSUsports.com 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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By Tom Shively, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa - It was quite a weekend for Penn State men's gymnastics, as the Nittany Lions put together a very strong performance at the Winter Cup in Las Vegas. Five gymnasts, including former Penn Stater and volunteer assistant coach Trevor Howard competed, and they all represented the university well. 

The gymnasts totaled nine top-20 finishes between them, including Howard's seventh-place finish on still rings and Leroy Clarke's identical placing on pommel horse. Some of the best gymnasts from all over the United States competed, and the Nittany Lions were right there with the elite. 

"All of the guys did well," head coach Randy Jepson said. "We had a couple high points and for the most part it was a great showing for Penn State."

Back east, the remaining members of the team brought home no shortage of hardware themselves, taking the top spot in the athlete dance competition at THON on Saturday night. They beat out the women's volleyball and football teams, helping energize a crowd of students and families that raised over $10 million for pediatric cancer research. 

"We were anxious to see how the guys would do, they put a lot of time and effort into that," Jepson said. "Wednesday is our light day and they took some time then to really work on their dance."

The team reunited early this week to put some solid practice sessions in before one of the critical stretches of the season. Only four regular season meets remain on the schedule, including back-to-back road meets this weekend and next.

There will be a change in format to watch out for the rest of the season in the way meets are scored. To this point, each team would send six competitors to participate in each event, taking the top five scores. From now on, only five gymnasts will be allowed to participate in each event and every score will count towards the team's overall total. 

While this puts more pressure on individual performance, it's certainly nothing the Nittany Lions haven't experienced before, as most gymnastics events leading up to the college level are scored individually, placing all the emphasis on every performance counting. This is simply par for the course and an exciting opportunity for Penn State to show off the consistency and depth on their roster during this final Big Ten push. 

"We prepare that way all season," Jepson said. "We're always looking at hit ratio as the team but also as individuals and we're constantly looking at who are the most dependable guys."

The Nittany Lions head to Navy this weekend to take on the Midshipmen. It will be their second time seeing the Midshipmen as they met earlier in the season at the West Point Open. The road trip continues next weekend at Nebraska before closing the regular season at home against Michigan and Iowa. 

Saturday's meet will begin at 2 p.m. in Annapolis.

VIDEO: Men's Gymnastics THON 2017 Pep Rally Dance

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Another highly anticipated THON event, check out the full men's gymnastics pep rally dance! The Nittany Lions took home the top spot, claiming the trophy for the best performance of the night. 


By Tom Shively, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa - One of the unique aspects of NCAA gymnastics is the team component, something most gymnasts aren't used to when they first arrive on campus. While they eventually learn to adapt to a more team-first approach, individual performance nonetheless finds itself at the forefront of several athletes' minds.

For one weekend, four Penn State gymnasts will have a chance to relive their junior days of old competition. The Winter Cup in Las Vegas, Nevada gives these gymnasts an opportunity to take a step back and approach their meet from a more personal angle, something they may not be able to do during team competition. Some of the gymnasts view this as a blessing, as they can go back and make some tweaks to their usually consistent routines. 

"This competition is unattached to the team," senior Leroy Clarke said. "I can get a chance to try new things, maybe add a new skill here or there. It's not something that would affect the team, more so just me. I can also try different psychological things. I'm always thinking about different ways in which I can personally improve my performance, and this is a perfect competition where I can go ahead and experiment."

Clarke and sophomore Michael Burns will both be making their second appearance at Winter Cup, and things are sure to be more familiar this time around.

"I'm more excited now that I know what's to be expected of me out there," Clarke said. "I know the environment is very different. It kind of brings me back to the days back in high school where everything was more individualized. I have a sense of how the travel and accommodations are going to be and I'm probably going to be jet-lagged for some time, but I'm excited because I have a better sense of how to prepare myself."

Clarke competed in three events at the Winter Cup last year, while Burns competed on five.

For Dominic DiFulvio and Favian Valdez, this year will mark their first appearance in blue and white at the Winter Cup. Valdez was invited last year as a Junior Olympian while he was still in high school, but wasn't able to compete due to a hand injury.

 "This is sort of like a redemption shot," Valdez said. "I want to prove myself and I want to do well for myself and the team. Even though it's individual, I'm still supporting Penn State." 

Winter Cup also gives these guys a chance to be around some of the best in the business, as this event brings U.S. Olympians, top college performers, as well as the top juniors all to the same stage.

There can certainly be pressure in that sort of situation, but it's also an opportunity for these gymnasts to showcase themselves around the highest level of competition.

"It's great to see them in person and compete with them," Valdez said. "They're at a really high level, and I'm not there yet, but they encourage me to get better and get to that level. It's definitely a chance to get my name out there and show that I can do well with big guys." 

"I've gone to two competitions like this, and to be alongside them feels truly amazing," Clarke said. "It also keeps me grounded in a way and it really empowers me to keep pushing forward. It's definitely a great experience having them there and getting to know them too."

 Clarke, Valdez, Burns and DiFulvio will all head to Las Vegas this weekend for the competition, beginning on Feb. 16 and ending two days later. The Nittany Lions resume competition as a team on Feb. 25 at Navy.

VIDEO: Lee and Clarke Talk Black History Month

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - In the second of a three-part video series, Penn State women's volleyball student-athlete Simone Lee sits down with men's gymnastics student-athlete Leroy Clarke to talk Black History Month and diversity throughout the entire Penn State Athletics community.

Throughout the entire month of February, Penn State Athletics is proudly sharing the stories of its African American student-athletes and coaches who have helped shape Nittany Lion history. View more here.

 

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By Tom Shively, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa - In a sport such as gymnastics, it's not always about the final score. It's a competition to prove yourself, and the Nittany Lions were a perfect example of that on Saturday afternoon in Rec Hall.

Although Penn State came up short against the Ohio State Buckeyes by less than two points, 419.150-417.750, the Nittany Lions made a statement to themselves and the rest of the country that this team will be a threat every night moving forward.

"These guys should feel very confident," head coach Randy Jepson said. "They [Ohio State] have a couple national team guys on their team, guys that have been on the junior team before. We just went toe-to-toe with them and I'm really thrilled with the heart that our guys showed. We didn't win on the scoreboard, but we won a lot in our own hearts today."

One of the bright spots for Penn State was freshman Sam Zakutney, who put together career-high routines on parallel bars and high bar, as well as beating his previous all-around high score by almost two whole points. 

After a near-perfect performance on the high bar, Zakutney crisply stuck his landing and flexed in celebration as he knew he had nailed his routine.  It was the final performance of the day, and Zakutney's reaction was about more than just killing his routine.

"I was absolutely blown away," Zakutney said on what was going through his mind the moment he celebrated. "So much tension throughout those entire two hours of competing completely let loose all at once, and it was the best feeling ever." 

Zakutney was the only gymnast on either team to compete in all six events, something that didn't phase him in the slightest, especially in the final two rotations. Fatigue would have set in for most people, but Zakutney pushed through and earned the aforementioned career highs. 

"I definitely tried to embrace the amount of positive vibes in the competition area," Zakutney said. "It usually puts me down because I feel like I have more pressure on myself, but today I just trusted my ability and used my good teammates to help me through." 

Dominic DiFulvio also put together a strong performance for the Lions, putting up the highest score on the team in rings and on the floor exercise. Despite the success, he still wasn't pleased with his overall day, citing consistency as something he needs to work on going forward. 

"I thought my performance was okay, floor definitely wasn't my best showing," DiFulvio said. "I guess I just kind of got the jitters out there, which was not normal. I thought [rings] went really well, just have to work on landings in the gym." 

Despite knowing there are areas to improve, overall the team is confident moving forward. 

More than anything, the performance gave the team some swagger moving forward, knowing they can compete with some of the best athletes in the nation. The Nittany Lions may still be raw, but they are certainly setting themselves up for success in the future.

"I told the guys, today it didn't matter if we won or lost," DiFulvio said. "I was absolutely thrilled with the way we all competed because we had been doing that in the gym and we hadn't shown it yet. It was great to be able to show that and let the country know that we are up there with the best." 

"We hit [our routines] and we were really close," Zakutney said. "It shows every other team in the NCAA we're fighters. Watch out. You don't underestimate Penn State."

The Nittany Lions will try to maintain their high level of competition next weekend as they head to the Winter Cup in Las Vegas.

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By Tom Shively, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa - The life of a college athlete is certainly never easy, especially when it comes to health. However, for Penn State sophomore gymnast Michael Burns, the journey back to form is much more important than the struggle.

When he first arrived on campus Burns didn't compete in every event he wanted to, needing to recover fully from a knee injury before he felt comfortable again in all events. It took almost all of his freshman season, but he was finally able to take part in every event by the time the 2016 Big Ten championships came around. 

"That kept me out of floor and vault for the most part," Burns said. "I wasn't competing in everything but I was training in everything, so it wasn't much of a difference. Now I definitely feel the effect of doing all of the events every weekend on my body." 

Back for his second season, Burns has stepped into a much different role, serving more as a guide now to his younger teammates. The pressure is certainly higher, but he feels that it's much easier to help out the team when he is training the younger guys.

"This year I just feel like I know what's going on more," Burns said. "It's been helping me to try to help the freshmen, so I kind of figure out what I'm doing and then I can help them with their stuff. Last year, everyone else was trying to help me and it made me think of myself too much. When you go out there and compete for the team, it's a lot bigger than just yourself. But, when you know you have the rest of the team backing you, it also makes it [the pressure] a lot greater."

"Physically, he's much more prepared this year," head coach Randy Jepson said. "He needed some work in terms of his strength and body tension, and all that work is paying off. We're seeing really clean gymnastics from Michael. The other thing is that he's become much more stable and confident. We didn't really have that last year, and part of that is the physical work he's done in preparation for the season. We've really seen him step up and hit a lot of routines for us." 

The injury can still nag Burns from time to time, but he understands the importance of pushing through for the team and staying persistent.

"I know the team needs me, so I'm just working through it as much as I can," Burns said. "I do enough during the week so I can be confident in myself on the weekend, but I don't do too much where it kills my back. The hardest thing has been learning when to stop and when to push through."

Burns certainly has pushed through at the right times, earning a top three finish in pommel horse and vault in the team's most recent meet at Illinois. He also put up three career-high scores earlier this season at the West Point Open, in floor exercise, parallel bars, and the all-around.

"The watershed moment for me was the West Point Open," Jepson said. "He's had a lingering back problem and even going into that meet was iffy and he hadn't done a lot of floor routines, but he hit every routine beautifully. This past weekend, in all but one event he was within one point of his start values. So he's doing really clean stuff and when you do that, you score well. That's kind of the motto we want our team to follow: It doesn't matter what happens, just finish within a point of your start value. If you can do that, stay on the event, we're going to be competitive with anybody."

Coming off the recent success, Burns has his goals set high for both himself and the team, understanding the potential within this group of guys.

"Honestly, I'd like to win a Big Ten and NCAA championship. Personally would be pretty cool, but I think that team ring would be awesome." 

The next step of that journey comes this Saturday against Ohio State in the second double-dual meet of the season. The meet is set to start at 4 p.m. inside Rec Hall.

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