The seventh-ranked Nebraska men’s gymnastics team returns home after a long stretch of away meets to host a pair of top-10 opponents. No. 5/6 Penn State and No. 9 Iowa come to the Bob Devaney Sports Center on March 4 for a Big Ten triangular meet, set to begin at 4 p.m. For tickets, visit huskers.com/tickets.
The Huskers are looking to avenge the last few meetings between both teams this weekend. NU already faced Penn State earlier this season at the West Point Open and fell by less than two points. Additionally, the Nittany Lions knocked the Huskers out of the 2016 NCAA Championship team finals by .400 points and topped the Huskers at the Big Ten Championships last season. As for Iowa, NU has not faced the Hawkeyes this season but did go 0-2-1 against them in 2016.
Scouting the Iowa Hawkeyes
Iowa is coming off a 409.950-397.100 loss to Illinois on Feb. 25. The ninth-ranked Hawkeyes are 3-7 overall and are looking for their first conference victory this season as the team is 0-6 in the Big Ten. Last time the Hawkeyes and the Huskers met during the regular season was in Lincoln on March 20, 2016, where the teams tied with a score of 432.450. Both teams also competed once more before that in 2016 in Iowa City, Iowa, where the Hawkeyes defeated the Huskers. Overall, the teams have met 38 times in the regular season and are tied 17-17-4.
Iowa is led by its four seniors Andrew Botto, Cory Paterson, David Spanier and Mark Springett. Iowa’s best event is vault as the team is ranked third on the event. The Hawkeyes also rank in the top 10 on still rings (ninth), parallel bars (eighth) and high bar (sixth). Botto is the highest-ranked Hawkeye. The senior holds the No. 9 spot on vault with a three-score average of 14.676 and a season high of 14.95.
Scouting the Penn State Nittany Lions
With a 9-2 record, No. 5/6 Penn State is the highest-ranked team at the triangular. The Nittany Lions recently defeated Navy 409.400-399.250. Penn State and Nebraska went head to head at the West Point Open to kick off the 2017 season. Penn State came out on top, while the Huskers finished in second. The Nittany Lions lead the overall series with the Huskers 9-5. Penn State ranks in the top 10 on all six events and is in the top five on pommel horse (third), still rings (fourth) and parallel bars (fourth). Freshmen standouts include Sam Zakutney and Favian Valdez. The pair has combined for the last seven consecutive Big Ten Freshman-of-the-Week honors. Additionally, Zakutney is the highest ranked gymnast for Penn State. The freshman from Ontario, Canada, is fourth in the parallel bars rankings and 10th in the all-around. Two-time All-American Leroy Clarke, Jr., is also ranked in the top 10. The senior holds the seventh spot in the pommel horse rankings and is the Blue and White’s lone returning All-American.
Huskers in the Rankings
As a team, NU ranks in the top 10 on all events except high bar (12th), which includes three top-five rankings on vault (fifth), floor (third) and parallel bars (fifth). Individually, three Huskers rank in the top 10. Anton Stephenson moved into the top 10 rankings on vault for the first time this season. The sophomore is tied for sixth. Daniel Leal holds the No. 7 spot on parallel bars, while Antonio Castro is ranked ninth in the pommel horse rankings.
Last Time Out
In the first meet of the season after Winter Cup, where every individual score counted towards the team score, the No. 7 Nebraska men’s gymnastics team put on an impressive showing against the No. 17/18 UIC Flames at the UIC Pavilion on Feb. 26. Led by a season-high vault score, which included the Huskers’ first 15.0 score of the season from All-American Anton Stephenson and a sweep of the individual event titles, Nebraska defeated UIC 406.300-367.950.
Anton Stephenson claimed the vault and pommel horse titles. He also shared the floor title with Austin Epperson. Chris Stephenson placed first on still rings. Leal took home the parallel bars title, while Jordan King earned his first-career title after taking first on horizontal bar.
Nebraska takes one week off before getting another shot at Iowa on March 20, this time in Iowa City, Iowa. Competition is set for 6 p.m.
Big Grips to Fill
The Huskers lost three gymnasts to graduation after the 2016 season, including a pair of All-Americans in Ethan Lottman and Sam Chamberlain. Both Lottman and Chamberlain were two-time All-Americans on pommel horse and parallel bars, respectively. Additionally, both held the school record on their respective event. NU also lost Ryan Irick, who was a consistent member of the pommel horse and still rings lineups.
The 2017 roster includes only two seniors in Austin Epperson and Coleman Tokar. The team will depend on its largest class - the nine juniors, to help the seniors lead the team both inside and outside of the gym. The upperclassmen make up more than half of the team. Of the remaining underclassmen, all but five have seen significant action in the gym, and only the three freshmen have yet to see any action in the gym at all.
Unroutine Season Debut
For the first time since 2003, the Huskers did not open their season at the Rocky Mountain Open in Colorado Springs, Colo. Nebraska kicked off the season in a new way at the West Point Open, as the team had not even competed at the competition since 2005.
Back in the Swing of Things
This season, Nebraska looks forward to the return of several gymnasts who were injured in 2016. Juniors Travis Gollott, Chris Stephenson and Brenon Sommers are expected to return to the lineups on many events for the Huskers. In 2015, Gollott was the Huskers’ only true all-arounder as sophomore. Stephenson was a key member on floor, high bar and parallel bars for the Huskers before he got injured. Sommers, a still rings specialist, was a big contributor on that event and hopes to be ready for action in 2017.
Strong Floor & Iron Horse
Last season, floor and pommel horse were consistently two of the Huskers’ best events. The team broke the school record on both events last season, while Kyle King and Ethan Lottman broke the individual records on floor and pommel horse, respectively. This season, the Huskers return all members of the floor lineup and all but two on the pommel horse lineup, so the Huskers look to have strong performances on those events for a second consecutive year.
Brothers Chris and Anton Stephenson have been nightmares for the competition this season. Although this is the second season the brothers have been on the team together, Chris was out most of last season with an injury. Now that both Chris and Anton are regularly in the lineups, the duo has been dynamic for the Huskers. The Stephensons combine for eight individual titles so far this season and hold the highest scores on three events and the all-around. Additionally, Chris placed in the top 15 at the Winter Cup Finals on Feb. 18, while Anton was the first Husker to break the 15.0 mark this season after scoring changes prior to 2017 typically lower scores by 0.5. Both Chris and Anton have claimed Big Ten Gymnast-of-the-Week honors once this season. Chris on Jan. 23 and Anton on Feb. 27.
Vaulting to Victory
Vault has been consistently the Huskers’ best event this season. It’s the only event that NU has scored at least 70.0 or more in every meet this season. The only 15.0 score for the Huskers this season came from Anton Stephenson on the event against UIC on Feb. 26.
Numbers To Note
2 - Returning All-Americans: Nebraska returns senior Austin Epperson and sophomore Anton Stephenson, who both earned their first All-America award at the 2016 NCAA Championships.
11 - School Records: In 2016, the Huskers broke 11 school records, including total score, individual floor score and individual pommel horse record.
16 - Individual Titles: Nebraska has claimed 16 individual titles so far this season. Anton Stephenson has the most with five, while Chris Stephenson and Antonio Castro each have three.
18 - Last NCAA Team Final: The 2017 Huskers look to make the team finals at the NCAA Championships for the first time in 18 years.