By Tom Shively, GoPSUsports.com
Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa - The intrasquad meets are over, and it's finally time for the Nittany Lions to gear up for competition. Penn State's men's gymnastics squad was ranked sixth in the initial College Gymnastics Association poll, and they are looking for their NCAA-leading 13th national championship this upcoming year.
Head coach Randy Jepson, now in his 26th season, is going to have to rely heavily on his seniors this season, as they look to build off solid 2016 performances and need to help the young guys develop. Leroy Clarke and Dominic DiFulvio in particular have been main cogs in this program since they arrived on campus three years ago.
"They've both grown into being great ambassadors for us, and great men," Jepson said on his two leaders. "They're really solid competitors, Leroy especially. He's grown, coming out of nowhere being un-recruited and he's done a great job. Both of them have team captain experience and are great leaders for us. [Dominic] is really going to do a great job this year for us. I'm excited that he laid the foundation for a great senior season."
Clarke was an eighth-place finisher on the still rings at the 2016 national championships, while DiFulvio nabbed four first-place finishes throughout 2015-16.
Despite the successes from last year, Jepson stressed that there are still areas in which this team can improve.
"We were very inconsistent on the pommel horse last year. It was a problem all year long until the end, and we were one of the better teams at the end because we made smart decisions about how we were competing and what we were doing," he said. "This year, I think that will be a much-improved event for us, so that's exciting to see. The other thing that's going to be a key for us is just consistency. We're not a team that is going to overpower anybody, but I think that if we're very stable and consistent, we could surprise some people."
Part of the reason Jepson is so confident is the arrival of two new studs on pommel horse, as freshmen Stephen Nedoroscik and Favian Valdez have both been labeled as some of the premier competitors in that event.
"We're really pleased so far looking at [Nedoroscik]," Jepson said. "He's just doing an outstanding job and, from what I've seen in his past, he's been a very good competitor. We're looking for solid routines from him all year long and hopefully he'll stay healthy enough to do that. The fact that we have a lot of depth this year will help us, but we're just going to have to be really solid in the system."
The team's intrasquad meet last Thursday, which was the first time the entire squad was in action at the same time and open to the public, allowed Jepson to better assess where his team is at this point in the season.
"Our fitness level is where it needs to be. Guys weren't fatigued and they were doing routines start to finish pretty solidly. It's always hard to get over that hump at the beginning, but I think they've done a good job in preparing physically. Some of the guys were pretty sharp for this time of the year while other guys need some work to do," Jepson said. "Getting that consistent practice time and intensity is really important. If you practice well, you have a much better chance to compete well."
Just about a month away from the season opener, the focus now shifts to how this team will prepare for the regular season.
"We have some things we need to accomplish in the next week as well as maintain our fitness," Jepson said. "They'll go home for about eight or nine days and then come back for the next two-week run to get ready for the season. Hopefully they'll stay in shape over those days that they're home and when they come back, it'll be fine-tuning and making lineup decisions even up to the last couple days before the meet."
Penn State opens up the regular season Jan. 13-14 at Army West Point as part of the West Point Open.