Dec. 29, 2013
MINNEAPOLIS – The No. 9 Minnesota men's gymnastics team opens the 2014 season with its annual Alumni Meet on Saturday, Jan. 11. Head coach Mike Burns expects the Golden Gophers to surprise some of their opponents. He anticipates the team's strongest events will be floor, pommel horse, still rings and vault.
"Overall, I'm pretty confident in this team," Burns said. "We don't necessarily have a lot of depth, so it's going to be critical to keep everyone healthy. But, whenever you have a situation like that, there are opportunities for people to step up.
"This season, we'll see some guys back in action after missing all of last season. Senior Steffen Beck is one of those. He'll be back at pommel horse and rings. He's looking pretty good."
Minnesota's 20-gymnast roster includes 17 returners from the 2013 roster. The Gophers lost Harris Coleman, Adam LaFleur and Josh Wokurka to graduation but added three newcomers in freshmen Zach Liebler and Mitchell Soukup and senior Sam Wright.
Burns broke down the Gophers' line-up event-by-event, sharing his thoughts on how each event is shaping up.
The Gophers will primarily rely on seniors Matt Frey and Justin Morinishi along with junior Sean Bauer as the top returners on floor. Last season, Frey averaged 14.559 and Morinishi averaged 14.564. Bauer earned a career-best score of 15.450 at Oklahoma last year for the highest Gopher score of the season and averaged 14.467 for the year.
"Floor is a pretty strong event for us," Burns said. "We lost two talented guys in Harris Coleman and Joshua Wokurka, but we also gained freshmen Zach Liebler, who's very talented and a competitor. He's had his ups and downs during training, but we're looking for him to be able to post a big score."
Frey, Morinishi and Bauer all advanced to the second day at the NCAA meet on floor last year. Burns said the team will look for leadership from this veteran group.
Junior Ellis Mannon will lead the Gophers on pommel horse. After finishing as the national and Big Ten runner-up on pommel horse last season, Burns expects Mannon to have another great season. Minnesota will also look to senior Steffen Beck, who missed last season due to injury but made it to the second day of the NCAA championships on the event as a sophomore.
"We have the potential to be a great pommel horse team," Burns said, but added that the team needs to execute in order to reach that potential. "Pommel horse is one of those events where it doesn't matter how good you are – you still have to hit the routines. It's a difficult event to be really consistent on."
"John Scallon is having a pretty good fall," Burns said. "We're hoping he'll be ready to step up and provide us with some scoring power. Paul Montague is back after competing on pommel horse during the second half of last season and did a nice job for us. He’s looking to be a strong contributor, along with Adam Kern, who is looking pretty good."
Last season, Mannon led the Gophers with a 14.864 average on pommel horse. His career-best score of 15.400 came at Nebraska, and he scored a 15.250 at the NCAA championships. Kern (13.246), Montague (13.278) and Scallon (13.581) each made regular appearances in Minnesota’s pommel horse line-up last season. The Gophers will have to replace Harris Coleman (14.268).
"I think we could be pretty good on still rings this year," Burns said. "It is probably our most improved event over the last two or three years."
Burns expects junior Sean Bauer (13.910), senior Steffen Beck, junior Steve Jaciuk (14.533), redshirt sophomore Jack Metcalf (14.788) and sophomore Paul Montague (14.206) to be Minnesota’s main contributors on still rings this season. Metcalf was a Big Ten finalist in 2013 and earned the Gophers' highest individual score on rings last season, scoring a 15.200 at the NCAA qualifier.
Senior Zack Chase and sophomore Michael Farquhar also return after seeing action on rings last season. Chase competed in four meets for a 14.625 average, and Farquhar competed solely on rings in nine meets for a 14.511 average.
The Gophers will need to replace Josh Wokurka, but Burns anticipates that Beck and Bauer should be able to fill that role as they return to the rings line-up. Beck missed the entire season, and Bauer saw limited action on rings in 2013.
Burns expects senior Zack Chase to be the Gophers' go-to competitor on vault. Chase averaged 14.563 over the first four meets last season before suffering a season-ending injury.
"Vault is an event I think we could be really good on," Burns said. "Zack Chase wasn't able to finish the year last year after suffering an injury. As a freshman, he was the Big Ten champion and as a sophomore, he was Big Ten runner-up on the vault. That's his strong event. If he's on, we'll be in good shape. A lot revolves around him."
Juniors Sean Bauer (14.538) and Ellis Mannon (14.317) and seniors Adam Kern (14.750) and Matt Frey (14.325) should complete the Gophers' vault line-up. Kern and Chase each scored a career-high 15.300 on vault last season.
"Sean Bauer is really starting to step up on vault, Adam Kern is looking great, and Matt Frey and Ellis Mannon are two of our top vaulters, too," Burns said. "I think we have the potential to be very solid on vault. I don't know if we could be the top team in the country on vault, but we could probably be in the top three."
"Parallel bars is our event with the least amount of depth but also the most amount of potential," Burns said. "We have the potential to score big, but we have to execute."
Junior Steve Jaciuk is the Gophers’ top returner on parallel bars after leading the team with a 14.642 average last season. His scored a career-high of 15.450 at Nebraska. Senior Matt Frey (14.300) and junior Ellis Mannon (14.245) will also lead Minnesota on parallel bars after competing consistently on the event last season.
Burns expects sophomore Danny DiBenedetto (13.625) and senior Nathan Fortunato (13.200) to complete the Gophers’ line-up on parallel bars. He mentioned that Frey, Mannon and DiBenedetto have all made changes to their routines this year. DiBenedetto saw action on parallel bars in four meets last season, posting a 13.625 average, and Fortunato competed in three meets.
The Gophers placed first in the team standings on high bar at the 2013 Big Ten Championships, led by Steve Jaciuk’s meet-best 15.150. Jaciuk and Danny DiBenedetto both made the Big Ten finals on high bar last season, placing third and sixth overall, and are expected to lead the Gophers again this season.
"Steve and Danny are the top two guys on high bar," Burns said. "Newcomer Sam Wright could be a really big impact player on high bar as well."
Jaciuk and DiBenedetto led the Gophers on high bar last season, averaging 14.467 and 14.373, respectively. Ellis Mannon (13.594), Sean Bauer (13.325), Josh Wokurka (14.000) and Spencer Smith (13.825) regularly appeared on high bar as well.
"High bar is an event we don't have a ton of depth on this season, but I think we could piece together a strong line-up and hang in there," Burns said. "We don't have quite the firepower as we do in other events, but the key on high bar is just that we have to hit. That's the beauty of the sport. You have to go out and raise your hand and do the routine. If you go out and you perform, you can make up a lot of ground with your execution."
Burns expects junior Ellis Mannon to compete in the all-around for the Gophers this season. As a sophomore in 2013, he appeared on every event except floor.
"Ellis has made some big improvements on rings and floor this year," Burns said. "Hopefully he can be a contender for All-Big Ten honors in the all-around this year. He has some big competition on pommel horse within the Big Ten, but he's looking really good right now."
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