Palo Alto Weekly

Sports - January 22, 2010

Top-ranked UCLA takes on Stanford in national preview

by Rick Eymer

There's a reasonably good chance that this year's Pac-10 champion in women's gymnastics will be competing in Burnham Pavilion on Sunday.

Eighth-ranked Stanford hosts top-ranked UCLA at 2 p.m. and for the previous 13 years, no other team has won a conference title outside of the Cardinal (five) and Bruins.

Over that same period, Stanford has produced four all-around champions and UCLA has produced 10 (including ties).

Oh yeah, there are Olympians scattered about each school's roster. Simply put, until the Pac-10 championship meet, this is as good as it gets.

At this early stage of the season it appears UCLA has the advantage. The current rankings are based on average team scores and the Bruins have scored 196 or better twice. Stanford scored 196.025 in its most recent meet, a victory over Arizona last Sunday.

"To score a 196 this early with places to make big improvements is a good sign," Stanford coach Kristen Smyth said afterward.

The energy should be hyper-elevated within the confines of the venerable pavilion this weekend.

The two teams meet again next month at Pauley Pavilion and then will compete again at the Pac-10 championships in Tucson in late March. UCLA hosts one of the NCAA Regional events this year.

"This team has great potential," Smyth said. "They're underdogs who are coming back with something to prove."

Stanford senior Carly Janiga, the reigning Pac-10 Gymnast of the Week, is the most visible of Cardinal gymnasts thanks to her all-around performance.

Janiga, a six-time All-American and the defending conference all-around champion, has won the all-around in each of the season's first two meets.

She's currently ranked fourth in the nation in the event and will see one of her top rivals in the event up close Sunday as UCLA sophomore Elyse Hopfner-Hobbs is ranked third nationally in the all-around and owns the top floor score.

Hopfner-Hobbs, last year's conference Freshman of the Year, and Stanford sophomore Alyssa Brown were teammates on the Canadian National Team. Hopfner-Hobbs competed on Canada's Olympic team while Brown served as first alternate.

Janiga participated in the U.S. Olympic trials in 2004, finishing in the top 10 in all-around.

Last year Janiga was the NCAA runnerup in the uneven bars, and won the all-around titles at the NCAA South Central Regional and Pac-10 championships. She recorded 19 first-place finishes.

In addition to earning the all-around title, Janiga is the two-time Pac-10 beam champion and tied for first on the uneven bars.

She was named the Pac-10 Freshman of the Year after finishing fourth at the NCAA championships in the event in her first season at Stanford.

As good as Janiga and Hopfner-Hobbs are for their respective teams, it takes the contributions of many for a team to be successful.

In Stanford's case that starts with Janiga and fellow seniors Allyse Ishino, Blair Ryland and Tenaya West.

Ishino, a 2004 Olympic alternate (she finished fifth in the all-around), missed her freshman season because of pulmonary embolism (a blood clot in the lung). Last year she tied for the uneven bars title at the NCAA South Central Regional.

Ryland was an All-American as a freshman and is the team's leadoff gymnast at most meets. West was a walk-on who earned a spot on the team through determination. She dealt with injuries last year that limited her contributions.

Juniors Shelley Alexander and Danielle Ikoma and sophomore Nicole Pechanec are three other keys to Stanford's hopes against the Bruins.

Alexander competed in the vault as a freshman and has since become one of the team's most versatile athletes and competes with Janiga in the all-around. Ikoma is another versatile athlete who performed on the vault, beam and floor last year.

Pechanec is a veteran of the NCAA championships and was a member, like her mother Yvette, of the Czech Republic senior national team. She won the balance beam at the 2007 World Cup.

In addition to Hopfner-Hobbs, other Bruins to watch are senior Anna Li and sophomore Tauny Frattone.

Li owns the nation's top score on the bars while Frattone has the top score on the vault.

Alexander also won an event for Stanford against the Wildcats, scoring a 9.90 on the vault. Janiga placed second on the bars (9.850) and the vault (9.850).

Alexander's vault was the day's highest score and one of 15 season bests by the Cardinal, which also had three collegiate career bests, including a 9.85 on the floor by freshman sensation Ashley Morgan, who placed second.

Morgan finished third in all-around at last year's Junior Olympic Nationals.

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