COLUMBUS, Ohio – After winning three-consecutive league titles, to bring the program’s total count of Big Ten titles to 12 in 2007, the Ohio State men’s gymnastics team relinquished its hold of the conference crown in 2008.
Now, as the Buckeyes welcome their largest freshman class since their 1996 NCAA championship winning season, the squad will look to turn heads in 2009.
Despite suffering an injury-plagued season, Ohio State pulled together and battled hard to earn third at the Big Ten championships in 2008, extending the program’s record to 22-consecutive years of placing in the league’s Top 3.
With 12 gymnasts returning from the 2008 squad, head coach Miles Avery hopes to pair their competition experience with the raw talent of a freshman class that features two of the nation’s top recruits to put together a lineup that should prove hard to beat.
Avery enters his 12th season at the helm of the Scarlet and Gray with two returning All-Americans in fifth-year senior Pejman Ebrahimi, the 2007 NCAA vault champion, and senior Jake Bateman, who earned All-America honors in the all-around a season ago. Add to that a highly talented nine-man rookie class, featuring U.S. Junior National Team members Philip Onorato and Alexy Bilozertchev, and the Buckeyes have proven talent from the top down.
Quiet and determined, senior Eddie Hay will champion floor for the Buckeyes. The 2007 Big Ten floor title holder, Hay returns as Ohio State’s top competitor on the event after scoring a program-best 15.75 vs. Penn State (Feb. 24) on the event as a junior. The Butler, Pa., native will be complemented by juniors Justin Myers, the team’s most improved gymnast for two years running, and Shachar Tal.
The depth for the squad continues on floor with the experience of all-arounders Bateman, Tai Lee, Sean Regan and Brandon Wynn, as well as the addition of Bilozertchev and Onorato who excelled on the event at the junior level.
On an event that can change the tone of a meet for better or worse, the Scarlet and Gray boast some of the best pommel workers in the nation. After redshirting last season, Steven Spencer brings a strong set of swing work to the 2009 squad. Ty Echard will be another fresh face for Ohio State on pommel horse. Together, the duo will push each other to improve as both could put themselves in the mix for Big Ten and NCAA titles.
Returning to the event for the Buckeyes are veteran event specialists Andy Saurber, a Big Ten and NCAA event finalist, and Michael Bell. Newcomers Mike Behles, Bilozertchev, Brandt Gomez and Matt Rayl add an extra layer of depth to the Ohio State squad, making it one of the deepest teams in the program’s recent history.
With five tremendous student-athletes returning to the event in Bateman, Ebrahimi, Lee, Tal and Wynn, as well as the addition of Onorato and Behles, rings should be Ohio State’s strongest event. Last season, Tal and Wynn set the program record, each notching a 15.35 on the event with Bateman trailing just behind with a personal-best 15.2.
A three-time Junior Olympic national title winner on the event, Onorato has the difficulty, execution and competition experience to be a challenger for the event title which will be a push for all the Buckeyes in the gym.
Ohio State will follow rings with another strong event, adding two difficult vaults with its incoming freshmen Onorato and Bilozertchev. Both rookie gymnasts will compete two of the squad’s hardest vaults and although they will be in their freshman season, both are seasoned competitors with U.S. National Team experience to help lead the vault squad.
With improvements made over the summer, Bateman, Wynn and Lee will also compete harder vaults while Hay, Myers and Regan will do great vaults Avery says. Add to all that, the return of 2007 NCAA vault champion Ebrahimi, who enters his fifth season after receiving a redshirt in 2008.
On parallel bars, the Buckeyes must replace six-time All-American DJ Bucher in 2009. Bateman, a true all-around competitor, comes back on the event after notching a program-high 15.5 on parallel bars as a junior. Avery also looks to Lee, who spent half of the 2008 season on the bench because of offseason surgery, to be one of the best parallel bars workers in the country.
After a great summer, working to raise the difficulty of their sets, Avery believes Myers, Tal and Wynn will be strong competitors for Ohio State on the event. Onorato and Bilozertchev will round out the Buckeye squad with freshman Behles also looking to get in the mix.
Ohio State will lean on its upperclassmen on the final of the six events. Bateman, Myers and Hay return as the squad’s top scorers and with a healthy Lee, the four will be the backbone of the Buckeye high bar contingent. Also returning for the Scarlet and Gray are sophomores Regan and Wynn. New to the lineup is Bilozertchev who Avery expects to step up and do well for the team on its most challenging event.
With six gymnasts capable of competing all six events, Avery’s all-arounders will look to be at the forefront of the collegiate pack, battling to win the conference and national titles. Bateman and Wynn return for Ohio State in the all-around after representing the Buckeyes in 2008. Bateman finished second at the Big Ten and sixth at the NCAA championships in the all-around, while Wynn finished sixth at the conference championships to earn first-team All-Big Ten status as a freshman.
Lee and Regan will look to figure in more in the all-around this season for Ohio State after training well on all six events this past summer. Lastly, Avery believes Onorato and Bilozertchev will be formable competitors in the all-around as rookies.
“We have six all-arounders which is important when you put your squad together to know these guys can do any event,” Avery said. “Any one of them could be fighting for the Big Ten and NCAA all-around titles with the best in the country by the time April rolls around.”