MINNEAPOLIS -- Ranked No. 7 in the Collegiate Gymnastics Association (CGA) Coaches' preseason poll and No. 5 in the Big Ten preseason poll, the Minnesota Golden Gophers return NCAA pommel horse champion Ellis Mannon as well as other standouts from the 2014 season including Steve Jaciuk, Paul Montague, Jr. and Jack Metcalf for the 2015 season.
Led by head coach, Mike Burns, who is entering his eleventh season, the team is looking to groom the newly welcomed freshmen class of ten talented gymnasts to competitive collegiate competition.
“We have a big crew of freshmen this year that will need to compete like seasoned veterans this season but they are a talented bunch," said Coach Burns. "I expect great things from them."
The relatively young team looks to regain momentum they started building with an impressive finish at the NCAA National Championships, coming up just shy of the ‘Super Six’ team placement.
The 2014-15 squad features four seniors, two juniors, one redshirt junior, one sophomore, one redshirt freshman, and ten freshmen.
“Everyone will have their job to do during the meets,” said Coach Burns. “Each gymnast's job on the competition floor is to compete with confidence and purpose, and to their level of competency. We have control only over a few aspects of a competition and it has to do with each individual's ability to attain a high level of achievement with the limitations of their ability.”
Senior Ellis Mannon is the reigning NCAA and Big Ten Champion on the pommel horse. Last season, he was named Most Valuable Gymnast by the team, as well as awarded the Outstanding Accomplishment Award. He competed in eleven meets, including the Winter Cup, and appeared on all six apparatuses. Mannon’s career high scores include: 14.400 on floor, 15.950 on pommel horse, 14.700 on still rings, 14.800 on vault, 14.600 on high bar, and an all-around score of 87.050.
“Mannon is training to defend his titles at the Big Ten and NCAA level, and will need to focus on getting the job done on a daily basis in practice, and competing with confidence at every meet this year,” said Burns. “He has added some difficulty to his routines and he has already proved his ability. Now he just has to continue with the plan and do his job.”
As he did last year, Mannon will travel to Las Vegas for the Winter Cup. At the Winter Cup, new members will be added to the U.S. Senior National Team and Mannon will look to make that squad.
Senior captain Steve Jaciuk, qualified for the event finals at the Big Ten championships last season and placed fifth and seventh on parallel and high bar respectively. Jaciuk qualified for the individual event finals at the NCAA Championships on high bar finishing in ninth place overall. He was also named Outstanding Championship Competitor by the team. Jaciuk is a three-event athlete; his career high scores are 15.150 on still rings, 15.450 on the parallel bars, and 15.350 on the high bar.
Senior Sean Bauer placed 13th on floor, tied for 20th on vault and 23rd on rings at the NCAA qualifier. He competed on floor, rings, and vault ten times, and twice on high bar last season.
“Bauer will be a key player for us this year on four events, and will be one of our emotional leaders on the floor as well,” said Burns.
Senior Spencer Smith competed in four meets last season and was named a CGA first team All-America scholar athlete.
“This season, Smith will be looked to for consistency on the high bar where he swings with elegant lines,” explained Burns. Smith’s high score on the high bar is 14.350.
Redshirt junior Jack Metcalf, qualified at the Big Ten championship last season, and was named Most Consistent Gymnast by the team. Metcalf’s highest scores last season was a 15.200 on still rings at the Big Ten team finals, and 14.350 on vault at both the Windy City Invitational and at Penn State. Metcalf qualified for the individual event finals at the Big Ten Championships on still rings and finished fifth.
Junior co-captain Paul Montague, Jr., qualified for second day of competition at the NCAA Championships last year on pommel horse. In 2014, he competed in nine meets on four events, and earned a career-high score of 14.800 on parallel bars.
Junior Danny DiBenedetto, competed in seven regular-season meets on four events last season before he was sidelined due to an injury. In the first five meets of the season, he improved his season-high score on the pommel horse, notching a career-high 14.050.
Sophomore Zach Liebler was named the team's Freshman of the Year last season. He advanced to the second day of the NCAA Championships and finished 12th after earning a 14.750 on floor exercise. Liebler competed in eight meets last season on floor and the high bar. At his collegiate debut, he notched a 14.100 on floor, and 13.200 on the high bar.
Redshirt freshman Mitchell Soukup earned the Most Inspirational Gymnast award. He hails from the Alamo Gymnastics Center in San Antonio, Texas. At the 2013 Junior Olympic National Championships, he placed fifth on the pommel horse and took home the championship title on the still rings.
“Both Liebler and Soukup have potential to be big contributors this season with a healthy campaign,” Burns said.
Luke Aldrich, Ryan Bergman, Tristan Duran, Joel Gagnon, Jack Kramer, Yaroslav Pochinka, Jordan Poganski, Jalon Stephens, Alex Wittenberg, and Shashank Yallamraju, make-up the talented freshman class of ten that will be featured on the Gopher squad this year.
“I've never seen a more motivated team than this one,” said Burns. “The freshmen have really injected a lot of enthusiasm to the gym, and they are excited to be a part of something bigger than themselves.”
The Maroon and Gold kick off its 2015 campaign this weekend at the annual Alumni Meet. Competition is set to begin at 1 p.m. at the Sports Pavilion. For more information on this weekend's meet, please follow Gopher Men's Gymnastics on Facebook and Twitter.
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