To chase perfection is to chase sports nirvana. To reach the very top without a single flaw, without a single chip in their armor is an accomplishment that is forever remembered. It’s another thing to double down and flawlessly climb the mountain again the very next season is another story, which is what the Oklahoma Sooners men’s gymnastics team is looking to accomplish at the NCAA Championships in Columbus OH, on Friday.
The Sooners started the season on top of the rankings and haven’t budged a bit. This season for the Sooners has been another example of their dominance. They won the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation title for the fifth consecutive season and for that, head coach Mark Williams was named MPSF Coach of the Year for the second straight season and the 12th time in his career.
Williams also had the benefit of two first-year assistant coaches who left their mark in program lore during their respective tenures as student-athletes. Steven Legendre made Sooner history as the first ever freshman to win two NCAA event titles (floor and vault) in 2008. He was also on the U.S. National Team in the 2012 London Olympics as an alternate. Taqiy Abdullah-Simmons was also a part of that 2008 championship team and also on the 2005 and 2006 national championship team.
“It’s been really positive,” Williams said, “the fact that they’ve done this before. I can draw from their experience because they’ve competed before. It’s something I’m really proud of because I got to extend the coaching tree by making these guys assistant coaches.”
“They’re two of the most amazing coaches I ever had,” sophomore Hunter Justus said. “Steve is just an amazing Gymnast. He’s trying to make another olympic team. I think [Abdullah-Simmons] has been a great asset. I remember seeing him [at the 2008 NCAA Championship] and said, ‘That guy is awesome!’ It’s so crazy that that guy is my coach.”
For the Sooners, perfection is not a rarity, compared to other programs. Oklahoma has finished with a perfect season three times in program history. Given how good the Sooners were last year and how good they are now, even after graduating seven seniors, senior Josh Yee sees this year’s squad as simply “a younger version” of the 2015 National Champions.
“We were a very experienced team and everyone knew their role,” Justus said. This year the freshmen did a very good job buying in. They made the [graduating seniors] replaceable.”
Among the freshmen, Yul Moldauer is the one has stood out the most. Williams even believes Moldauer could make the Olympics in 2020.
“The fact that he’s No. 14 in the country as a freshman is amazing,” Williams said. “We’re seeing Yul’s talent coming out early in his career.”
The emergence of Yee is one of the biggest differences between this year and last year. Yee arrived as a recruited walk-on and earned a scholarship. He was cut the next year and had to move to the club team and work his way back to the roster. Along the way, Yee found his confidence and his voice and is now one of the senior leaders of the Sooners.
“He basically came out of the shadow and said ‘I’m going to be a leader,’ and he did,” Justus said.
The Sooners are coming to the NCAA qualifiers with three individual conference champions. Junior Allan Bower won the all-around (90.100) in the MPSF meet in Stanford, Moldauer won the parallel bars with a national-best 16.000 and senior Kanji Oyama claimed his third consecutive title on vault (15.400).
The top competition to the Sooners is Stanford and Ohio State. The Buckeyes are the host team and the Cardinal were runner ups last season. The Sooners have won the national championship in in 2002, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2008 and 2015. Only Illinois (10) and Penn State (12) have more titles.
“I think I have enough guys that have been in second place before and know winning is not guaranteed,” Williams said. “You have to work hard.”