The members of the men’s gymnastics team had one goal on their minds when they traveled to West Point, N.Y. this weekend: back-to-back Eastern College Athletic Conference Championship titles.
Though the team had been struggling entering Friday’s meet, losing to rivals, Navy and William & Mary, two of the previous three weekends, the injury-plagued Owls managed to win their 16th ECAC Championship. Temple (16-5 overall) was just one-tenth of a point better than runner-up William & Mary, defeating them, 341.45-341.35.
“It was tougher this year because we lost [juniors] John Vogtman and Nick Iles to injury,” said coach Fred Turoff, who was selected as ECAC Coach of the Year over the weekend. “Had we had [Vogtman’s] services, it wouldn’t have been close at all.”
As conference champions, the No. 13-ranked Owls earned the right to compete in the NCAA Qualifier at Stanford on April 17, somewhere Turoff acknowledges his team wouldn’t be if not for the ECAC victory.
Usually only the top 12 teams in the nation qualify, but instead, with the Owls’ win, No. 12 Illinois-Chicago gets left out of NCAA play.
“We didn’t beat William & Mary or Illinois-Chicago by enough to move ahead of them in the rankings,” Turoff said. “We’ll remain [ranked] 13th, but get in [NCAA competition] anyway.”
The Owls snuck into the NCAA Qualifier by squeaking out a victory at the ECAC’s. The squad’s top gymnasts came through in the clutch to help the Owls seal their second consecutive conference title.
“When we got to our last two guys, one had to score 15.1, [and senior] Sterling [Kramer] missed his dismount,” Turoff said. “[Senior] Luke [Vexler] came through with flying colors. When the 15.2 flashed, I knew we had won.”
Prior to the start of his senior campaign, Vexler said the team expected to do “no less than what we did last year,” and he made sure of it.
Not only did the 5-foot-6 gymnast seal the victory, but, like last year, he took home first place in the all-around contest. Vexler also finished first in the floor competition, second on the horizontal bars and the pommel horse, and third on the vault.
“Last year, being at home [in McGonigle Hall], it was special to win,” Vexler said. “Being away from home this year, it was just as great. We had just as many fans.”
In the individual competition Saturday, Vexler earned another medal, finishing tied atop the standings with sophomore teammate Patrick McLaughlin in the floor event.
“I put a lot of pressure on myself because I wanted to defend my title,” Vexler said. “Before the meet, I realized I didn’t have to stress so much. A whole lot [had already] went into this season.Pat McLaughlin had the day of his life [and] guys stepped up and filled [Vogtman’s] shoes.”
When it was all said and done, though, it was Vexler who carried the team to victory.
With his performance, the senior may have increased his chances of winning the Nissen-Emery Award, an award considered to be the highest individual honor in college gymnastics.
Vexler was also selected as the ECAC Senior of the Year.
“I didn’t even bring his name up first,” Turoff said. “(A) coach said (Vexler), we were asked if there were any other nominees and no one said another.”
Despite consecutive conference titles, Turoff won’t label the Owls the most dangerous squad entering Stanford’s Burnham Pavilion. Temple’s competition at the national meet will include top-ranked Stanford, Oklahoma, Penn State, California and Illinois.
“There are much stronger teams in the NCAA than we are,” he said. “Hopefully, we can have a good showing [and] see if we could move ahead in the rankings.”
But Vexler is looking for more than a better ranking.
“According to statistics, that’s the case, there are better teams,” he said. “But we beat [seventh] ranked Ohio State [Feb. 2].
“College athletics is the place for the underdog to take down the big dogs, so I’m keeping an open mind.”
Jeff Appelblatt can be reached at email@example.com.