With often-intimate connections formed through the recruiting process and four years — or more — of training and competition, it’s rarely easy for coaches to say goodbye to graduating seniors. When you graduate five All-Americans on the heels of winning the NCAA championship, like men’s gymnastics coach Thom Gilelmi did this year, it can be overwhelming.
Faced with that daunting task, the No. 4 Cardinal kicks off its defense of last season’s title tonight when it takes on No. 5 California on the road in Berkeley, Calif.
The rival Golden Bears regularly prove a stiff test for Stanford, and last year saw the Cardinal rebound nicely from a season-opening loss to Cal, winning the Big Flipoff and the last dual-meet of the season to enter the postseason with plenty of momentum.
But the loss of All-Americans Alex Buscaglia, Josh Dixon, Tim Gentry, Ryan Lieberman and Abhinav Ramani — all of whom graduated after competing for the Cardinal in last year’s NCAA meet and Buscaglia’s win of an NCAA Individual Title on the horizontal bar — has left some questioning Stanford’s depth.
Despite fielding a roster of only 13 members — other teams like Cal regularly carry up to 20 athletes with 15 allowed to travel to most competitions — Glielmi has been impressed by the team’s ability to step up its training so far this offseason.
“We need guys to be ready, even if they’re in the seventh spot of the lineup in a sport that has six competitors,” he said. “We may need them to step in and compete. The need to be ready is inherent in our sport since guys are getting injured all the time. We’re going to be calling on our all-around gymnasts this year a lot and that really takes a lot out of them.”
One athlete, Glielmi, likely won’t have to worry as much about in the spotlight is Eddie Penev. A three-time All-American, the junior is one of the team’s best all-around gymnasts and won an NCAA Individual Title on the vault as a freshman in 2010.
With All-American Cameron Foreman looking to improve on his third-place finish on the parallel bars last season and sophomore Cale Robinson hoping to bounce back from a knee injury suffered last year, Stanford still enters the season ranked among the nation’s best teams.
But with many of this year’s main gymnasts unseasoned in high-pressure competition — Penev is in fact the only returner to post an All-Around score last season in a meet — the defending NCAA champs have plenty to prove early on.
Glielmi acknowledged the high expectations his squad faces, but the two-time College Gymnastics Association National Coach of the Year said that he fully expects to make a deep run in this year’s postseason.
“Our goal is always an NCAA championship,” he said. “Regardless of how we finish in the dual-meet and regular season, the guys need to come away from each competition knowing what they need to do to improve and be the best they can be at their events. We’ll be strategic when we use guys and be ready to go come postseason.”
Against the Bears, who finished fourth at the 2010 NCAA Championships, it will be important for Stanford to start strong and not fall behind early. Cal boasts two members of the U.S. senior national team, Donathan Bailey and Glen Ishino, and had three members of the team compete at either the World Championships or Pan American Games during the fall.
Coach Tim McNeill’s team also returns four All-Americans.
The Cardinal, which has finished in the top three at the NCAA Team Championships for six consecutive seasons, gets its season underway tonight at Haas Pavillion at 7:30 p.m.