Commentary

Oklahoma aims to bring home title

Originally Published: February 4, 2011
By Mechelle Voepel | ESPN.com

Oklahoma's Megan Ferguson estimates she began in gymnastics -- formally, anyway -- when she was about 5 years old.

[+] EnlargeMegan Ferguson
Courtesy of Oklahoma AthleticsMegan Ferguson has provided a spark for the Sooners.

"I guess a lot of people start when they're 2," Ferguson quipped. "So I don't know if I was just late to the game."

Actually, she was doing informal gymnastics probably from the time she could move. And occasionally scaring her mom and dad to death, the way it seems a lot of future gymnasts do.

"I used to do flips all around the house," Ferguson said. "And do dangerous things on the playground. My parents decided they wanted me to do this stuff in a safe environment -- you know, where it was padded, there were mats, and people were watching me. So they put me in gymnastics. And I just fell in love with it."

Ferguson, a junior from Olathe, Kan., is sort of the leader of the pack for a group of Sooners that -- despite losing five seniors after a breakthrough year -- still has very high goals for this season.

"Megan is a little spark plug; she provides a lot of energy for us," Oklahoma coach K.J. Kindler said. "She's an impeccable role model. I couldn't ask for a more disciplined, dedicated or committed person on our team. She's an incredible leader who expects more of herself than anybody else in the universe would expect of her."

Ferguson, an only child, says being in gymnastics "gave me a group of sisters." And with the rest of the Sooners last season, she experienced the exhilaration of doing something Oklahoma never had before: reaching the NCAA Super Six team finals.

In the 29 years of the NCAA women's gymnastics championships, only four schools have won the title: Utah, Alabama, Georgia and UCLA. Oklahoma made a good run at joining that group in 2010, finishing second to the Bruins.

UCLA won with a score of 197.725, while Oklahoma -- led by then-senior Hollie Vise -- came in at 197.250. The OU program's previous best finish nationally had been eighth.

"There was no disappointment with our performance last year," said Ferguson, who also earned All-American honors on the uneven bars. "What we did is one of the greatest memories in my life. I reminisce about it, but we've moved forward as a team and are excited to have the opportunity to do it again this year."

The Sooners are currently No. 5 in the GymInfo national rankings; Florida, Stanford, Utah and Georgia are the top four teams. Oklahoma is coming off a dual-meet victory last Friday over No. 14 Washington.

Redshirt sophomore Natasha Kelley, who has persevered through Achilles tendon and ACL injuries at Oklahoma, took the uneven bars and balance beam competitions against the Huskies.

"She's been through so much injury-wise," Kindler said of Kelley, who is from Katy, Texas. "Now, she's at the top of her game. She's ranked in the top five on balance beam. She's been terrific on bars and learned a new dismount, which is incredible considering the leg injuries she's had. I can't say enough about the hurdles she's had to overcome."

Freshmen Madison Mooring and Taylor Spears both have been named Big 12 newcomer of the week this season. And sophomore Kayla Nowak and junior Sara Stone also have earned weekly league honors. On Sunday, the Sooners will face Big 12 rival (for one last season) Nebraska, which is ranked No. 10.

Heading north will take Kindler and her husband/assistant coach, Lou Ball, into familiar territory. Kindler, a native of Minnesota, competed at Iowa State. Ball, a native of Nebraska, competed for the Huskers. But they actually didn't get to know each other while both were college gymnasts in the early 1990s in what was then the Big Eight.

Kindler finished her career in the spring of 1992, graduated in December of that year and was brought aboard -- at age 22 -- as an assistant coach at her alma mater. Ball was hired to work at Iowa State's camps the next year and then also joined the Cyclones' staff.

Kindler became Iowa State's head coach in 2000-01, and in 2006 she led the Cyclones to their first Super Six appearance. As an athlete, she'd been the first Cyclone to qualify to the NCAA regional level. So in her time in Ames, Iowa, as both competitor and coach, she helped the program make a considerable climb.

The decision to leave Iowa State came as Kindler and Ball were starting a family and knew that they had reached a crossroads in their lives.

"I was seven months pregnant, and we were running a club program and a college program in Ames," Kindler said. "We worked 70-80 hours a week, and we knew with the baby that was going to be a difficult thing to continue to do.

"The opportunity came open at Oklahoma. It's just an incredible athletic department. I know a lot of people think of it as a football school, but all sports across the board are supported here. We thought this program could win a national championship, and that's a career goal of ours."

Oklahoma will be host to one of the six NCAA regional meets in early April. The NCAA championships are in Cleveland on April 15-17.

Weekend warriors

• Sooner power: Oklahoma's men's gymnastics program is currently ranked No. 4 nationally and is participating this weekend in the Winter Cup Challenge in Las Vegas. The OU men have won eight NCAA team titles, most recently in 2008. The Sooners are led by Steven Legendre, a senior from Port Jefferson, N.Y., who has won six NCAA individual titles.

• Beantown rivalry: Defending NCAA champion Boston College, which has six losses but ascended this past week to the No. 1 ranking in men's ice hockey, will face Massachusetts on Friday and then Boston University on Monday in the Beanpot. It will be the fourth meeting this season between the Eagles and Terriers; BC has won the previous three.

Boston College has four NCAA titles; Boston University has won five. Those two programs have combined for the past three NCAA championships.

• Cornell No. 1 again: After Penn State's loss to Iowa this past Sunday, Cornell regained the top spot in wrestling, with the Hawkeyes and Nittany Lions ranked 2-3 nationally. The Big Red begins the five-meet Ivy League portion of their schedule Saturday at Columbia.

Mechelle Voepel is a columnist for ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com.

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Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.