New Mexico has won the last six Western Athletic Conference men's gymnastics championships. If the Lobos are to keep their string going, they'll have to really earn it this time.
The three-team WAC is no longer a one-horse race."I think if we do well, it will be tough for anyone to beat us in any competition," says Brigham Young coach Mako Sakamoto, whose Cougars are ranked fourth nationally and have two of the NCAA's best all-arounders in freshman Liang Jing-Wei, ranked No. 2 nationally, and senior Jason Brown, the defending WAC horizontal bar champion.
BYU hosts the WAC Championships in the Smith Fieldhouse this weekend. The team and all-around titles are Friday night at 7; individual-apparatus titles will be decided Saturday at 1 p.m.
Twentieth-ranked Air Force is the other entrant and could challenge individually for titles but isn't expected to be in the team race.
"It could be our year," says Sakamoto. "We're psyched to do well," he says.
The motivation? Hardware. A conference meet means "trophies are at stake."
That and a dress rehearsal for the NCAA West Regional at Albuquerque April 11. The Cougs rank third in the 10-team West. The top four regional finishers at the regional advance to the NCAA Championships.
New Mexico has come on late in the season and scored 281.4 two weeks ago. "That's above where we are," says Sakamoto, whose team has a three-meet ranking average of 281.3 (one home meet, two away). New Mexico's ranking average is 278.28, fifth-best in the region.
"It's going to be an exciting and tough meet. For us to beat them, we have to be consistent and hope we don't have two misses in an event."
Sakamoto, in his fifth season with BYU, says the Cougars have always peaked late and done well in the postseason, having twice made the regional field. This season, the Cougs "are a pretty close-knit group," Sakamoto adds. They're good enough now he has trouble making up lineups because some good gymnasts are left out.
The addition of Liang from the Chinese national team has made BYU a national contender.
In the all-around, says Sakamoto, "It's going to be pretty hard to knock off Liang. He's almost invincible. He's he talk of the whole country; wherever we go, he's like the favorite."
The one time Liang was beaten in an all-around, it was Brown who did it, 57.9-57.8 against Michigan State.
Liang's specialty is pommel horse, where he received a 10 from one judge and 9.9 from the other for 9.95 in his last meet. Brown is best on floor exercise. "Jason's floor is world class. Liang's pommel horse is world class," says Sakamoto. Liang is the more consistent performer, Sakamoto says.
Other Cougs to watch are consistent sophomore Ritchie Ellis and junior Chris Reshetar. When BYU went to Penn State March 21, Reshetar, a Philadelphian, had nearly 100 fans in the crowd. "His whole family came out, and he just caught fire," the coach says, adding he's stayed that way.
Todd Jennings, Carlos Fulcher and Frank Fuchs are other Cougar mainstays.
New Mexico junior Steve Wiegel, an all-arounder who was 1991 West Region vault champion, impresses Sakamoto. Senior Lyle Scott and sophomore Tim Collins also lead the Lobos. Air Force returns defending WAC champions Mike Cline (floor) and Joel Miller (rings). Both are also all-around hopefuls.