Ranked No. 3, Men's Gymnastics Opens Season at Army Saturday
Excellence and dominance. Two words that describe Penn State's 2004 NCAA championship run, and it's elite history. It's a different word however, parity, that will be the marker for the Nittany Lion's championship defense in 2005. A trait indicative to this year's NCAA field, fans will see a number of squads, in addition to the defending champion Lions contending for the 2005 title.
According to 2004 National Coach of the Year Randy Jepson, "This year is a very exciting year. There are a number of teams at the top level or very close. There are going to be a lot of good teams this year. Ohio State, Michigan, Cal, Stanford, Iowa, just to name a few. Michigan didn't lose anyone. With all of the parity, it's going to be a challenge to repeat. In order to be successful relies on three things: health, consistency and luck."
And with a race as tight as this year's, who wouldn't want a little bit of luck? Several veterans return to the fold, however, that will also add a great deal of skill to the Lions' quest to defend the title this year. Last year's NCAA All-Around champion, junior Luis Vargas will lead this year's team, fresh off a 15th-place appearance in the 2004 Olympic games in Athens, Greece. While the Lions' only other All-American from last year Kevin Tan is gone, all-Big Ten pick Chad Buczek also returns for his junior campaign, one that should be fraught with promise.
It is the senior class that Jepson will rely on most heavily for its leadership as well as performance level this year. Captain Steve Tobin joins seniors Ludwig Kern, Zak Rimler, Ed Seward and Jerker Taudien in a senior line-up that will be depended upon greatly.
In addition to its veterans, newcomers like Tommy Ramos and Derek Helsby will also be called upon to give the Lions a boost when they need it. Floor Exercise
A stable event for the Lions in terms of losses and gains, Penn State will need a strong showing on floor to successfully contend for a repeat championship. Of the top three scores from last season, only 2004 Zack Roeder was lost to graduation.
According to Jepson, "Floor is a pretty good event for us when I look at what we lost and what we gained. Tobin, Vargas and Buc Kern are back."
Additionally, freshman Santiago Lopez has a 10.0 start value in the event.
Gone is 2003 NCAA runner-up Zach Roeder from the line-up on the pommel horse, leaving the Lions with at least one big pair of shoes to fill. Kevin Tan and Nat Eng, an NCAA finalist last year, have also finished their time in Happy Valley, leaving 2004's NCAA runner-up Luis Vargas one of the most experienced veterans on the apparatus.
"Pommel horse is the event that we've had to rebuild the most on. Freshmen Derek Helsby and Tommy Ramos, in addition to Matt Cohen, Chad Buczek and Justin Miklos will all have to take up the slack," said Jepson.
"Vargas could win an NCAA title on the pommel horse and we do have solid veterans on the event in Buc Kern and Jerker Taudien. We'll have to develop this event well to grow to be consistent as a team and succeed. This is a key point for us." Still Rings
The loss of Kevin Tan, Penn State's two-time NCAA champion on the rings, is perhaps the most noticeable line-up change on any single apparatus coming into the year. Despite the loss, however, health remains the biggest concern on Jepson's mind when he thinks about the event. In addition to quality veteran Chad Buczek, who posted his high of 9.750 last year vs. Temple, look for freshman Tommy Ramos to be one of the next big things to come on the rings for the Lions.
"Ramos is great and Buczek is back, which will provide us a good base," said Jepson. "McIntyre has been working hard. Health is what I worry about the most with the rings. Obviously, we lost Kevin Tan, but Ramos has a very strong routine coming in."
Led by 2003 All-American Ludwig Kern, the vault could be one of Penn State's strongest events this year. Captain Steve Tobin and junior all-Big Ten pick Chad Buczek also scored high last year in this event.
"This could be one of our best events. Santiago Lopez is very strong and Luis Vargas is much better," according to Jepson. "Chad Buczek and Buc Kern are obviously pivotal and Steve Tobin is a very, very good vaulter."
Gone from the mix on parallel bars is 2004 Big Ten champion Kevin Tan. This event then becomes another place where All-American Luis Vargas must make his presence felt. In Jepson's eyes, the junior could win a national title on this apparatus as well.
"We lost big routines out of Kevin Tan to say the least," said Jepson. "Tommy Ramos and Derek Helsby are good additions to the line-up here. A lot of people will have to pull through for us to be successful."
An event where the Lions have the most room to grow is the high bar. Kevin Tan gave the Lions a quality score that will have to be replaced with his exhausted eligibility. Several Lions are expected to step up on high bar.
"Currently, this is an event that is not as strong as I would like," said Jepson. "We don't have the start values yet that I would like us to. Buc Kern is solid for us here, and Tommy Ramos and Luis Vargas will be key. Ed Seward and Matt Cohen are developing into factors on the event and Helsby should play into the mix as well."
With the return of 2004 NCAA champion and Olympian Luis Vargas, the Lions' stable of all-arounders is obviously strong. All-Big Ten selection Chad Buczek also returns, and Jepson has added standout freshmen in Derek Helsby and Tommy Ramos, who once they gain experience will be counted on across the board. Vargas, last year's champion, marked the first Nittany Lion all-arounder to win the title since 1973.
The Lions open this season again at Army, followed by a triangular meet in Happy Valley to open the home slate on Jan. 21 between Penn State, Navy, and Temple.
Penn State returns to West Point, the site of this year's NCAA championships, for the West Point Open on Jan. 28-29 before headed West to the Winter Cup on Feb. 4-5.
The NIttany Lions then embark on three consecutive weekends facing Big Ten opponents, starting on Feb. 12 at Illinois. A televised double dual in the Bryce Jordan Center vs. Michigan on Feb. 19 is followed a week later by another Big Ten double dual, this time vs. Ohio State.
In the much-anticipated return of international gymnastics to Happy Valley, Japan takes to the floor of Rec Hall to meet Penn State on March 1 at 7 p.m. Intercollegiate competition resumes on March 12 for the Lions at William & Mary.
This year's Big Ten championships will be held at Michigan from March 25-26, with the NCAA championships being contested at Army from April 7-9.
"Oklahoma is ranked first right now, followed by Illinois and then us. I'm not sure whether or not we're that good, but we have the potential to be that good," said Jepson. "Our senior class is a really huge key to how good we will be this year. I'm really expecting our seniors to carry us: Jerker, Tobin, Kern, Seward and Rimler. On top of that Vargas needs to be healthy and ready for us to defend our title."