The Norman Transcript

January 12, 2013

Runners up last year, Sooners expect to get right back into title contention

By Michael Kinney
The Norman Transcript

NORMAN — Troy Nitzky hasn’t forgotten. In fact, the Oklahoma redshirt senior gymnast won’t let himself forget how it felt when his Sooners came up less than two points short of winning a national championship last season.

As much as it hurts to remember that April 20 night at Lloyd Noble Center, where OU lost to Illinois 358.85-357.45, Nitzky and his teammates are using that pain of that moment as fuel to finish off this season one spot higher this season, when the NCAA championships begin April 19 in State College, Penn.

“That thought is in my head every single day I’m at the gym,” Nitzky said. “I think it will be in my head up until April when we’re competing again.

“I think it’s in every single person on the team’s head knowing how close we are, knowing what we need to do. I think we have taken that in and accepted it and gone back in the gym and changed all the things we needed to change to make sure it doesn’t happen again this year.”

The Sooners head into this season ranked No. 3 and seeking the program’s ninth national championship, a trophy last claimed in 2008, the year before Nitzky arrived in Norman from his Philadelphia home.

Since 2001, OU has finished first or second at the NCAA championships 10 times. Nitzky doesn’t see that changing.

“As always, our expectations are very high just coming from OU,” Nitzky said. “We expect to at least be top three and competing for a national championship … every single year.”

Last season, the Sooners earned 12 All-America honors, more than any other squad. That includes Nitzky, who earned his second straight on the rings.

Other returning All-Americans include senior Chris Stehl, sophomore Danny Berardini and junior Preston Ellsworth. They’ll form the core of a young team that features 15 freshmen and sophomores.

“The great thing about the sophomores is that they now have the scope of a full season behind them and they understand the whole process of competing throughout the regular season and into the championship rounds and team finals,” OU coach Mark Williams said.

The Sooners and everybody else will be confronted with a new scoring system.

In the past, six gymnasts have competed on each apparatus, with the top four scores added together to determine the team’s score. This season, five scores will count. Also, beginning in March, only five will perform on each apparatus, leaving no place for a weak performance to be tossed out.

The new format will reward consistency and depth.

“I think from a spectator standpoint, it will be much easier to understand who’s winning and who’s doing well,” Williams said. “When somebody falls, it will affect your team right then. You know you won’t have the option to drop a score later.”

OU will be without All-American and Olympian Jake Dalton for the first time in three seasons. Remaining gymnasts know they must step up.

“Everybody had taken it upon themselves to make up for what he brought to the team,” said sophomore Dylan Akers, who competes in every discipline. “I just want to see myself consistently putting up scores for the team.”

OU kicks off its season today at the Rocky Mountain Open, where the Sooners will be joined by Nebraska, Arizona State, Washington and host Air Force.

As the team prepares to make a run at the program’s ninth national championship, OU believes it has what it takes to finish the job.

“I think it’s more than just training,” Nitzky said. “I think it’s becoming a closer team, which I think we have more than any other year.”

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