Huskies poised for success with good mix of young and old

When head coach Joanne Bowers first set foot on campus, the Washington gymnastic program was mired in mediocrity.

Now, they feel they’re on the threshold of the national spotlight.

Four years ago, the Huskies were the 48th-ranked team in the country. They enter their 2011 campaign ranked 21st, and with designs on even loftier ground.

“Our team and staff goal this year is to get in the top-18 — we think we can do that,” Bowers said.

Whether or not the UW is able to live up to the expectations of its coach will depend on a good deal of experience infused with plenty of youthful exuberance.

The Huskies will be led by a trio of seniors in Haley Bogart, Samantha Walior and Kristen Linton. All three will be counted on for major contributions, but perhaps none more so than Linton, who last season took home the UW’s first regional championship in any event since 2004 with her victory in the floor exercise.

Bowers emphasized the leadership that is expected of these three gymnasts.

“They’ve been great leaders for the team in every way,” Bowers said, “when you talk about their attitudes and effort in practice, and their leadership abilities.”

Linton and the rest of her teammates are ready to get the season started.

“It’s exciting to be a senior,” Linton said. “We’re just ready to go have fun and do our thing.”

Big things are also expected of freshman Aliza Vaccher. At the annual intra-squad meet in December, the Arizona native was both the beam and all-around champion. Vaccher will be a rarity for the Huskies this season: a gymnast expected to contribute in every discipline.

“She’s very strong in all four events,” Bowers said of Vaccher. “So she has the capability of helping us as an all-around gymnast. It’s hard on your body, and it’s hard to even be at that high a level on every event.”

Vaccher talked about the significance of her strong showing in the preseason meet.

“I wasn’t as nervous as I expected going into the intra-squad meet,” she said. “But having that experience, with the meet format and just being out there, it definitely helps going into the first meet.”

More gymnasts than usual may be forced into competing in all four events because of a real weak spot in the Huskies’ rotation: the vault.

“We’ve got some really strong vaulters — we just don’t have a lot of them,” Bowers said.

Bogart, the vault champion at the intra-squad meet, is expected to lead the group. Consistent contributions will also be expected from Vaccher and junior Hatsune Akaogi.

“We’re trying to get a little more depth,” Bogart said of the vault. “So it’s kind of a cool event because everyone has a shot of being in the lineup, and everyone has an opportunity to come in and help the team on that event.”

Bowers and assistant coach Shanna Hannan have been developing new routines for their more inexperienced vaulters and increasing the difficulty of their veteran vaulters’ efforts. However, their success or failure may ultimately come down to staying healthy.

“It’s just going to be imperative that the ones that can vault for us stay healthy, because we just don’t have a lot,” Bowers said.

The Pac-10 will be a viciously difficult league to navigate. The defending conference and national champion, UCLA, is once again the No. 1 team in the nation in the GymInfo preseason poll. They are joined in the top 10 by two more conference members: Stanford, at No. 6, and Oregon State, which checks in at No. 8.

Being in such a competitive conference has both its ups and downs for the Huskies, but it does serve as an indelible measuring stick for the team: When they are good enough to win the conference, they will be good enough to truly compete for a national championship.

Competing next to better teams can show the UW what it needs to do to reach the upper echelons of the sport, but the piling losses can sometimes be frustrating. Bowers thinks walking this tightrope will be key to the Huskies’ season.

“You just have to keep telling yourself and your team that we can only worry about the things we can control,” Bowers said. “We can control whether or not we hit our routines, and how well we hit our routines. Let’s not focus on them, let’s focus on us.”

“But don’t get me wrong,” Bowers added severely. “We’re all competitors, and we want to win.”

Reach reporter Kevin Dowd at sports@dailyuw.com.

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