Gymnasts head for NCAAs with guarded optimism


The last time Iowa won a national championship in men’s gymnastics was 1969.

It’s not likely that will change this week.

The Hawkeyes will compete tonight in the qualifying round of the 2009 NCAA championships in Minneapolis, preparing to conclude a season that has seen physical ailments decimate their chances for success.

“They’re working hard,” Iowa head coach Tom Dunn said during the team’s afternoon practice on April 13. “Unfortunately, it’s probably the worst season I can recall in my 38 years in terms of illness and injury. Not serious injury, but injuries that keep people out for a little bit.”

To date, the season’s results are indicative of a team facing not only a slew of illnesses and injuries, but also a team that is young and inexperienced — the perfect ingredients for inconsistency.

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Today’s action will include two separate sessions featuring six teams in each. Teams seeded 1, 4, 5, 8, 9, and 12 will compete in the early session beginning at 1 p.m., and seeds 2, 3, 6, 7, 10, and 11th-seeded Iowa will compete in the evening session, which is scheduled for a 7 p.m. start. The top three teams from each session will advance to Friday’s team finals. The top gymnasts will also advance to Saturday’s individual event finals.

Iowa is coming off a sixth-place finish at the Big Ten championships on April 3, and it will enter the competition as the lowest seeded of the six competing Big Ten teams. The 15-man team is composed of nine underclassmen.

Dunn is all too familiar with that fact, along with the struggles his team has faced this season. As a result, he hasn’t set the bar unrealistically high for his team this week. But he also isn’t counting them out.

“Gymnastics is quite a bit of statistics and average scores,” he said. “I think the guys know where we stand. I’m not telling them we have a good chance to win the tournament — the scores don’t reflect that at all. On the same token, we don’t tell them we’re just going in for the experience.”

By looking at the qualifying scores, it’s easy to see where Iowa stands — more than 22 points behind No. 1-seeded Stanford. But these Hawkeyes aren’t packing it in for the summer just yet.

“Anyone can win on any given day,” junior Reid Urbain said. “None of us are counting ourselves out saying that we can’t win anything. Everyone is going to push to do the best that they can. If some individuals think there’s less pressure because we aren’t the ‘best team in the NCAA,’ then they shouldn’t be slacking off because of that thought, they should be working harder.”

A Dunn-coached team is never going to be short on hard work. And despite the youthful composition of the team, the season hasn’t been without its bright spots for some of the younger competitors.

Sophomores Mike Jiang and Ben Ketelsen finished 1-2 on pommel horse, and freshman Tayler Scharman took first place on parallel bars in a quadrangle meet in West Point, N.Y., on March 14. Freshman Zach Cazabon captured fifth place in the all-around competition at January 17’s Windy City Invite in Chicago, Ill. — his collegiate debut.

So maybe, just maybe, the Hawkeyes will turn some heads this week. After all, what have they got to lose?

“I don’t think there’s really that much pressure for them,” senior Geoff Reins said. “With expectations being somewhat low from outside perspective, they really shouldn’t feel any nervousness going in. Hopefully, next year the team can kind of use this experience and be a lot better and make some noise.”

The Hawkeyes probably won’t raise the national championship trophy in Minneapolis this week, but they might just end up paving the way for future success.

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