2008 Penn State Men's Gymnastics Season Outlook
Jan. 9, 2008
By all accounts, the 2007 season was a special one for the Penn State men's gymnastics program. The Nittany Lions captured their NCAA-record 12th national championship in thrilling, come-from-behind fashion in front of a raucous partisan crowd in its home venue, historic Rec Hall. Memories of that triumphant moment will forever be etched in the minds of each team member, but with a new season on the horizon, those recollections will serve as fuel in the pursuit of yet another title. The task of repeating in 2008 will be daunting, but the Nittany Lions are focused and motivated to accomplish that feat.
Penn State returns all but two regular contributors from that championship team including six All-Americans in Derek Helsby, Vladi Klurman, Santiago Lopez, Tommy Ramos, Casey Sandy, and Nick Virbitsky. Recruiting this offseason has produced a talented freshman class that has the ability and maturity to make an immediate impact. Team leadership will be capably provided by senior captain Santiago Lopez, a seasoned competitor with a dynamic personality.
Guiding the team is an experienced and expert staff, led by 2007 National Coach of the Year, Randy Jepson. In his 17th year at the helm of the Nittany Lion program, he is Penn State's all-time winningest coach. Back for his 12th season in Happy Valley is assistant Slava Boiko, a master technician. Also returning is former six-time All-American at Penn State, Kevin Tan, who valuably lends the perspective and support of an active, world-class gymnast. Both Boiko and Tan were honored as National Assistant Coaches of the Year in 2007.
For Penn State in 2008, the floor exercise is the event that could serve as the foundation for regular and postseason success. Loaded with not only talent but also depth, the Nittany Lions will utilize that ability to gain a decided advantage and distance themselves from the competition. Its deep line-up will also allow Jepson to rest performers when needed and will be a boon to the long-term health of the team.
"We are probably the best we have ever been on floor," said Jepson. "Not only are the routines strong, but we are really deep. We could put two entirely different line-ups on the floor and compete with anybody in the country. I think we are that good."
"We are very, very strong, but we have to be healthy," said Jepson. "We don't have a ton of quality depth, but the routines we have are very good. We showed last year that we can really make a difference in this event and I think that will be the case again this year."
The Penn State line-up boasts two All-Americans in the pommel horse in junior Casey Sandy and senior Derek Helsby. A year ago, Sandy was dominant in the event, recording 11 first-place finishes while holding the nation's No. 1 ranking for much of the season. The 2007 runner-up is among the favorites to claim the title in 2008. Seniors Brad Spicer and Vladi Klurman, redshirt freshman Jason Chu, and newcomer Warren Yang will also be counted on for consistent performances.
"We will be comparable to last year. We have maybe a little more depth than we did last year, but we should be competitive with most teams on rings," said Jepson.
Two-time All-American and 2007 national runner-up Tommy Ramos will headline the Penn State line-up. A former Big Ten rings champion, he is a threat to win each time he competes and will have an excellent shot at a national title on the rings. Vladi Klurman stepped up in a major way in the postseason last year, earning All-America honors in the rings. Fellow senior Derek Helsby and junior Casey Sandy in addition to youngsters Allen Harris, Noam Shaham, Josh Borromeo, and Jason Chu will give Randy Jepson many talented options.
"We have tried to up our vaulting difficulty," said Jepson. "With the new code, the separation in difficulty between different vaults is much higher. It pays, if you can do them, to do a harder vault. But we have to be consistent."
Santiago Lopez, Vladi Klurman, Nick Virbitsky, Jason Chu, and Warren Yang will be key to Penn State's fortunes in the vault in 2008. Lopez is a former All-American in the event while Klurman, whose signature vault in the tough double front, spent a good portion of the 2007 season as the No. 1-ranked competitor in the nation.
"Casey Sandy and Tommy Ramos will lead us," said Jepson. "Casey is doing an outstanding routine and Tommy was an All-American in the parallel bars the last two years. They will be anchors for us. Also, Derek Helsby, Santiago Lopez, and Vladi Klurman have great competitive experience. Noam Shaham and Jason Chu will also figure in eventually and do a good job for us."
"We have to be really smart on high bar. The more you try to do and the more risk you take, the more deductions you can incur. It's kind of like a chess game. I think we will have competitive high bar, but we have to make wise decisions and that burden will fall upon the coaching staff."
Tommy Ramos placed second in the high bar at the national collegiate championships in 2007, earning All-America accolades. Derek Helsby recorded Penn State's highest score in the event a year ago, a career-high mark of 9.700. Casey Sandy posted five top three finishes in the high bar in 2007, including two title wins. Sophomore Noam Shaham performs an outstanding routine, which includes a skill named after him that only he alone performs, and is poised to make a bigger impact in 2008.
"We are pretty deep and that will help us in terms of health and people being able to step in when needed," said Jepson.
Junior Casey Sandy is an elite all-arounder and will challenge for the national title in 2008. Last season, he posted Penn State's top all-around score, a career-high mark of 54.400, and placed second at the Big Ten Championships. Senior Derek Helsby is a former All-American in the all-around and earned All-Big Ten honors in 2007. Vladi Klurman, Jason Chu, and Shaun Antonio have the talent in all six events to also be contributors.
Penn State will begin the season at home on Jan. 12 when it hosts Army in the first of five home meets. The Nittany Lions will also welcome Temple (Jan. 26), Big Ten rival Minnesota (Feb. 2), and William & Mary and Navy (March 8) to Rec Hall in 2008. The home schedule will culminate with the Nittany Lions' clash with national powerhouse Oklahoma on Senior Day on March 22. Ranked No. 3 in the nation in the GymInfo preseason poll, the Sooners will return to Happy Valley looking to avenge their narrow loss to Penn State at the 2007 National Collegiate Championships.
"I am really happy with the home schedule," said Jepson. "Minnesota is an improved team, so that will be an exciting home event. We finish out with Oklahoma which will undoubtedly have a strong team. It's a great home schedule for our gymnasts and for our fans."
The Nittany Lions' first road test comes in week two when they travel Ann Arbor to face Michigan. The Wolverines handed Penn State one of its two losses in 2007. The conference dual meet will also mark Penn State's debut on the Big Ten Network. In February, the Lions will be challenged by consecutive road meets versus Big Ten powers Illinois (Feb. 16) and Ohio State (Feb. 24). The 2008 regular season road schedule concludes in mid-March with a trip to the West Coast for a tri-meet with host California and Army.
"We go on the road to face some good teams this season. The meet at California will be huge in preparing us for competing in that time zone later on in the year," said Jepson. "I think the schedule will prepare us well for the postseason. Fortunately, we get one off weekend, which will be a big benefit to us."
Penn State will seek its second conference title when it hosts the 2008 Big Ten Championships from April 4-5 at Rec Hall.
The 2008 season will culminate with the National Collegiate Championships, to be hosted by Stanford University from April 17-19. All three days of competition will be held at Maples Pavilion in Palo Alto, Calif. Penn State will defend its national championship and look to build on its NCAA-record 50 individual titles.