2007 Penn State Men's Gymnastics Season Outlook
A popular adage states that "timing is everything" and for the Penn State men's gymnastics team 2007 could be the right time for the Nittany Lions to rise again to the pinnacle of the sport and reclaim their position as national champions. Led by 16-year head coach Randy Jepson, Penn State's all-time career leader in victories, the Lions have the experience, leadership, and talent, in addition to a set of special circumstances in their favor, that, compounded together, could work to accomplish that lofty goal.
Penn State returns all but one competitor from a team that placed fourth at the 2006 NCAA Championships, including three All-Americans in juniors Derek Helsby, Tommy Ramos, and Santiago Lopez. An offseason of recruiting has produced an outstanding freshman class that is prepared and poised to make an immediate impact. Team leadership will be capably lent by senior captain Matt Cohen, a seasoned competitor with a tireless work ethic. The schedule is challenging, featuring six of the preseason top eight nationally ranked teams, but also favorable in that it includes five home meets.
With a talented team primed for an exceptional season and a veteran coaching staff ready to lead it back to the top, the timing could not be more perfect for Penn State to host the NCAA Championships on its home floor and contend for a national title in front of a partisan crowd at Rec Hall.
"You bid for the NCAA Championships four or five years ahead of time, so you don't know what kind of team you will have," said Jepson. "It is fortunate, how it has worked out, that we have a contender. But saying that and doing that are two entirely different things. Talk is cheap. They know that. I say that every day. Their actions are what are important. Hopefully, they live by that until the NCAAs and then turn possibility into reality."
"In the past, we have had a couple of competitors with very good start values but, after that, we really fell off," said Jepson. "We now have six, seven, eight, or nine performers on floor that we can interchange and they are all the same; they are all good. Floor exercise is an event in which we should be out in front on in terms of the rest of the country."
Headlining the Nittany Lions on the floor will be Casey Sandy and Santiago Lopez. Sandy placed in the top three in each of his performances in 2006 and Lopez owns Penn State's best floor exercise score among returnees, a career-high mark of 9.525. Gifted freshmen Cody Carnahan, Allen Harris, and Nick Virbitsky will also see action and could make significant contributions.
"Realistically, I look at our routines and I look at what we can do, I think we are the best team in the country on the pommel horse. However, they have to believe that and hit their routines," said Jepson.
Derek Helsby and Casey Sandy will be Penn State's top pommel horse performers in 2007. Helsby won the event at the team finals of the 2006 NCAA Championships and placed third in the individual event finals, earning All-American honors. Sandy posted the best score on the team in 2006, a 9.450, and was ranked No. 1 in the nation on the apparatus when he suffered his season-ending arm injury. Pommel horse specialists Justin Miklos and Brad Spicer are back from injury-plagued 2006 campaigns and are poised to close out their collegiate careers with their best seasons yet. Veterans Vladi Klurman and Matt Cohen and newcomers Jason Chu and Noam Shaham will also be factors.
"We not only have routines that can score well, but we have a lot of them. That should really be a benefit to our team," added Jepson.
Derek Helsby made huge strides last season on rings and will again be a key figure for the Nittany Lions. Junior Vladi Klurman also showed great promise in the event last year and sophomore Josh Borromeo has made significant improvements to his routine this offseason.
"One of the keys will be that our young guys need to step up," said Jepson. "This should be a solid event for us and I think it's an event that we won't lose ground to anybody on."
"We are going to have to use good judgment. Some of the guys will be able to do harder vaults and take those chances. Other guys are going to have to pare back."
Santiago Lopez, an All-American in 2005, Casey Sandy, Jason Chu, and Vladi Klurman will be key to Penn State fortunes on vault in 2007.
"I think looking at other teams that are out there, we are certainly as good as anybody on vault. The key will be confidence and getting enough repetitions to where they feel that they can land and not take steps."
"I think Casey is the best parallel bar performer in the country right now at the collegiate level," said Jepson.
Add the talents of Derek Helsby, an All-American in the event in 2006, and Tommy Ramos, the consistency of Matt Cohen, and the promise of Vladi Klurman, Shaun Antonio, and Jason Chu and Penn State will have good depth and solid expertise on the parallel bars in 2007.
Derek Helsby is a potential All-American in the event and Casey Sandy performs an impressive routine. Tommy Ramos earned All-American honors in the high bar in 2006 with a seventh place finish at the NCAA Championships. Freshman Noam Shaham is unproven but could supply "the wow factor," according to Jepson, as he has a skill named after him that only he alone performs.
"I am thrilled because I think we have the finest schedule we have had since I have been at Penn State," said Jepson. "We get a mix of teams from the across the country that will challenge for the national championship. That kind of competition will hone us to host the NCAA Championships and for making a run at the title."
Penn State will begin the season at home on Jan. 13 when it hosts Army in the first of five home meets. The Nittany Lions will also welcome Big Ten rivals Michigan (Feb. 3), Illinois (Feb. 17), and Ohio State (Feb. 24) and West Coast power California (March 17) to Rec Hall in 2007.
"We have five opportunities at home and they will all be marquee events. It's a great home schedule for our gymnasts and our fans. I am excited that they will get to be at Rec Hall that many times," said Jepson.
The Nittany Lions first road battle comes in week two when they will travel to Philadelphia to face Temple, James Madison, and William & Mary. One week later, Penn State heads north to New York to seek its tenth-consecutive title at the West Point Open. The 2007 regular season road schedule concludes in early March with trips to William & Mary (March 3) and Stanford (March 10).
This year's Big Ten Championships will be held in Minneapolis, Minn. from March 30-31.
The 2007 season will culminate with the NCAA Championships, to be hosted by Penn State University. From April 12-14, the nation's elite collegiate gymnasts will converge on University Park to vie for individual and team glory.