Nine is Fine: Oklahoma Rolls To Gymnastics National Title
NORMAN, Oklahoma - As Danny Berardini stuck his landing on the high bar, the partisan Oklahoma crowd at Lloyd Noble Center roared its approval. Sooners coach Mark Williams, normally stoic and restrained in his outward expressions, leaped into his seniors' arms and celebrated the moment that was a long time coming.
After a seven-year drought, Oklahoma found its way back to top of the college gymnastics world, capturing the 2015 national championship with yet another complete performance.
The Sooners run to the program's ninth national title has seemed like one giant coronation ceremony since the middle of February. Along the way, the Sooners set all kinds of scoring records and cruised through every competition.
Just as the Sooners' dominance wasn't clear until a recording-setting performance against Michigan on Valentine's Day, the national title seemed to be up in the air early in the competition.
Through the first two rotations, the overwhelming favorites showed signs of nerves. A small hop out of bounds on floor exercise and a fall and two more less-than-impressive routines on the pommel horse left the Sooners in third place after two rotations, 1.3 points behind the leader, Penn State.
“Pommel horse is one of those events where if you get nervous, then you get small and you get tight and it's hard to control that,” senior Alec Robin said. “We kind of saw that a little with our first guy that went up. After that, we kind of just pushed through and said we're not going to let anyone step in and take it away from us.“
Then came still rings, where Oklahoma seized control of the competition and their national championship hopes.
The Sooners set a program record with a 76.800 score, but it was senior Michael Squires, a former walk-on from Edmond, that ignited the team and the crowd with an NCAA record-tying 16.450. When two-time national champion on rings stuck the landing, he roared and flexed toward the crowd.
There was no real doubt remaining about whether or not the Sooners would come out on top. The only question remained was by how much.
“Sitting below the rings waiting to salute the judges, your mind kind of just empties and you just think about what you do all the time,” Squires said. “I think the most nerve-wracking part of any meet is the hours leading up to it. Once you have control of your own destiny and you're able to go up and do what you do, that's when you have the most calm and you're the most collected and everything is in your power.”
The Sooners grabbed the lead with their performance on rings and then held serve the rest of the way, finishing with a 447.050, nearly seven points better than Stanford, which finished in second place.
Fittingly, it was the Oklahoma seniors, tired of coming up short on the biggest stage, who propelled the Sooners on every apparatus. Squires' performance on rings stands out more than the others, but Berardini and Robin turned in critical performances as well, capped by Berardini's performance on high bar as he was bleeding from the head, the result of a small mistake on the parallel bars.
“Being second place three years in a row and having that same feeling again and again and again, it just takes a toll on you,” Robin said. “Every year we're going to work as hard as we can, but this past year we really took it a step forward. We went undefeated and were dominating this whole season. It shows really hard work ethic can pay off.”
After winning five national titles in seven years, the Sooners went through a seven-year title drought before finally coming through on Friday night. Despite not having a superstar on the roster, Williams said this year's team is probably the most complete team he's had in Norman.
“I think in terms of depth we had the most of any team I've coached,” Williams said. “There wasn't a weak event. Other years where I felt we have to get through this event if we're going to win.”
The Sooners weren't perfect on Friday—their final score was a full 10 points lower than their best performance this season—but with a team this good and this dominant, they didn't have to be. Oklahoma showed throughout the past three months a complete team performance means no hope for the opposition.
“I honestly think we exceeded the expectations I had because we had a couple of record-breaking performances this season and those were pretty incredible,” Berardini said. “At the time, I said not many teams could beat us—we would have to be off for a team to beat us.”
Even a slightly off performance was more than enough for another national championship for Oklahoma. It had been a long time (relatively) since the Sooners stood on top of the podium. As the cheers from the OU fans rained down, the Sooners stood and savored the moment as a two-month coronation ceremony ended with sweet victory.