Women's gymnasts take a shot at NCAA title
Men's volleyball opens MPSF playoffs on Saturday night; women's tennis plays host to Cal with title still up for grabs
The 10th-seeded Stanford women's gymnastics team will be looking for its best performance of the season when it takes to the floor in the first session of the NCAA championships Friday at the Gwinnett Center in Duluth, Ga.
Stanford (18-7) competes alongside No. 2 seed UCLA, No. 3 Oklahoma, No. 6 Nebraska, No. 7 Utah, and No. 11 LSU in their six-team session that begins at 9 a.m. PT. The top three from each of the two sessions advance to the Super Six team final Saturday.
"I think we'll surprise some people for sure," Stanford coach Kristen Smyth said. "Our whole plan this year was to start off a little slower, to build throughout the year, to get athletes healthy and to add difficulty as we moved along."
Stanford will follow the same rotation schedule that led to a second-place finish at the NCAA Champaign (Ill.) Regional. The Cardinal begins with a bye and follows with floor exercise, vault, bye, uneven bars, and finishes on the balance beam.
The top four individuals in each event (plus ties) from Friday's semifinals will compete in the individual-event competition Sunday.
Stanford qualified for the NCAA Championships for the fifth time in six years and for the 12th time in its history. The Cardinal hopes to advance to the Super Six for the fifth time in nine years.
"We're in a good position," Smythe said. "We are going to have to do our jobs, hit 24 out of 24 routines. It will not be easy. If we can do that, we can compete with anybody."
Juniors Ashley Morgan and Nicole Dayton and sophomore Shona Morgan will also be competing at the NCAA meet.
Perhaps the development of the freshmen class will make a huge difference at the national meet. It is comprised, after all, of two-time U.S. senior national champion and Pac-12 vault champion Ivana Hong, former U.S. national team member Samantha Shapiro, 2008 British Olympian Rebecca Wing, and two-time Junior Olympic national qualifiers Alex Archer and Pauline Hanset.
"We're continuing to get better," Smythe said. "Every day in the gym the girls are improving, squeezing all the deductions out of our work. We haven't peaked yet and that's a huge motivating factor."
Hong was limited by injuries early, but now is in the lineup in multiple events. Shapiro has largely competed in one as she overcomes injuries of her own. All have made an impact in the lineup. Shapiro has scored 9.875s on bars and vault, Hong has scored 9.9's on vault and beam, Wing should perform at leadoff in two events at nationals. Hanset has scored six 9.85's or higher on floor, and Archer has been in the vault lineup in four meets.
"We've had exceptional leadership from all three of our seniors," Smythe said. "They have all done a great job, but who stands out in my mind is Alyssa Brown, who has been a leader since she's arrived on campus."
Brown did not let a shoulder injury at the beginning of the season slow her down. She maintained her rehab schedule and worked with the freshmen, getting them to embrace Stanford gymnastics.
"That leadership went a long way," Smythe said. "That setback helped her step up into a leadership role even more."
Brown, who has also played hockey, worked her way back and will compete in three events. She scored a 9.90 on both the bars and vault at the regional meet in only her second routine this season, winning the regional crown on vault and placing second on bars. She will also compete on the balance beam.
Senior Nicole Pechanec won the uneven bars (9.925) regional title and sophomore Amanda Spinner, who missed the past two years with injuries, finished in a four-way tie for first on the balance beam (9.900).
Senior co-captain Jenny Peter helped organize an education program in the U.S. Virgin Islands over the summer that brought together high school students from all over the territory.
No. 16 Stanford heads returns to Tempe hoping to extend its three-game Pac-12 winning streak. The Cardinal (6-9, 32-13) meets No. 4 Arizona State (8-2, 36-5) in a three-game series beginning Friday at 7 p.m.
Stanford, which currently resides in seventh place in the conference, three games behind third-place Oregon, recorded a sweep of visiting Oregon State last weekend.
Senior infielder Jenna Becerra hit 6-for-15 (.400) last week, and all six of her hits went for extra bases. She hit three doubles and three home runs, including two grand slams. Becerra finished the week with 11 RBI, five runs scored and a 1.200 slugging percentage.
No. 12 Stanford notched its third shutout of the year on Wednesday, blanking Pacific 7-0 in its final home match of the regular season, ending a two-match losing streak.
The Cardinal (15-7, 4-2 Pac-12) travels to Berkeley on Friday to face No. 14 California in the regular season finale for both teams.
Despite suffering a loss to top-ranked UCLA last weekend, Stanford (7-1, 16-1) is still in the running for the Pac-12 title, or at least a share of it. The No. 5-ranked Cardinal needs to beat No. 10-ranked Cal on Saturday (noon) at Taube Family Tennis Stadium.
Stanford, Cal, UCLA and USC each have one league loss, so this weekend's matchup with the Bears is critical for the Cardinal. Mallory Burdette will bring a 16-0 dual-match record into the showdown.
Stanford (20-6) will play host to Pepperdine (14-14) in a Mountain Pacific Sports Federation playoff opener on Saturday in Maples Pavilion at 7 p.m. The No. 2-seeded Cardinal needs to win the league tourney to be guaranteed a berth in the Final Four on May 3 and 5 in Los Angeles.
Leading the way for Stanford will be senior outside hitter Brad Lawson, who was named Sports Imports/AVCA Men's Division I-II National Player of the Week for his role in a pair of victories last weekend.
Lawson, a two-time AVCA first-team All-America, led Stanford to three-set victories over visiting UC Santa Barbara and UCLA to lift the Cardinal from fifth to a second-place finish in the MPSF.
Lawson, a 6-7 senior outside hitter, had 27 kills, 4.50 kills per set, and a .523 hitting percentage in the two victories.