The two-time defending Eastern College Athletic Conference champions, the men’s gymnastics team, took a backseat this year to the women’s team and one individual.
While the men’s team did not have the finish it wanted at the ECAC Championships, placing fourth, it was not entirely its fault. Several of its top performers, sophomore Adam Al-Rokh (third place on pommel horse), senior Jason Russo and junior Patrick McLaughlin had nagging injuries. It was especially disappointing for the departing Russo (strained wrist) and McLaughlin (strained oblique), who was the defending floor exercise champion. Al-Rokh’s injury was not any less painful, as he dealt with a pulled pectoral muscle.
However, the women’s team had its best team finish in Temple history at the ECAC Championships, placing third, just less than two points behind second-place Cornell and first-place Towson.
For the Owls, the season has been yet another improvement. Third-year coach Aaron Murphy, who took the job in 2007 after serving as an assistant under men’s gymnastics coach Fred Turoff, earned his first ECAC Coach of the Year Award. He also coached the team’s first individual to NCAA Regionals since 2005, when Lexi Zafferes qualified for vault.
Sophomore Katie Canning not only made it to the NCAA Regionals, but she shined as the only Temple women’s gymnast in Tuscaloosa, Ala. Murphy didn’t know how Canning would respond when he brought her to the biggest stage in women’s gymnastics.
“As a coach, I was thrilled to bring this girl here,” Murphy said. “Some of the best girls in the country are at this meet, and I didn’t know how she would react to it. I think there was close to 8,000 people in the crowd, and she hit four-for-four [events].”
Canning’s emotions got the best of her before the meet, exactly when she needed to let them out.
“I was definitely intimidated. I called my dad, and I was crying,” she said. “I said, ‘Dad, I’m so out of my league here.’ I talked to my coaches, and they told me I made it this far, and that I know I can do it. Just be confident and hit your routine, and that’s what I did, and it worked out pretty well.”
Temple has a solid nucleus returning next year for the women in Canning, junior Nina Oteri and freshman Kaity Watson, despite saying goodbye to some of its best competitors in the conference in seniors Winter Sneed, Natasha Crawford and Nikki Berrian. Sneed placed second on floor exercise at the ECACs, and Berrian was honored as the ECAC specialist of the year for her consistency and hard work in the uneven bars.
The men’s team’s hard work and consistency did not earn it a third consecutive ECAC Championship. The Owls started off the year strong and healthy, especially when senior John Vogtman returned to the Owls’ lineup after missing almost the entire previous season because of injury. However, the injury bug proved to be too strong this year.
The Owls fell to two teams they beat handily earlier in the year, Navy and William & Mary. The Owls scored a season high as a team against William & Mary in their previous meeting, despite a poor finish on the high bar when several Owls were penalized with falls. Turoff noted this was a problem for the Owls again this weekend.
For the Owls’ individual finishes at the ECAC Championships, it was mostly disappointing, as they brought back defending champions in the floor exercise and vault, junior Patrick McLaughlin and sophomore Scott Bloomfield, respectively. Neither of them could defend their crowns, although McLaughlin did repeat as the third-place finisher in the all-around.
The Owls counted on their youth, freshmen like Matt Martin and walk-on Evan Burke, for a big portion of this season. It was no different during the ECACs, as the Owls had an emerging performance from freshman Chris Mooney. Mooney took second place on vault (15.600) and third place on rings (14.550). Overall, in individuals, the Owls did take home six medals.
Turoff is optimistic about next season, as the Owls return all the individual medalists from this year, but says every year ultimately comes down to health.
“The other teams are going to be better and bringing in some good guys, too, but I look at the talent in the gym,” he said. “If we have good health and good training, then I think we can challenge for the championship again.”
The women’s team finishes its season at the USAG Nationals in New Haven, Conn., Thursday. The men’s team is still waiting to see who will go to the NCAA Qualifier, which begins next weekend.
Eric Pellini can be reached at email@example.com.