Oklahoma will open its 2022 season in the Rocky Mountain Open Saturday in Colorado Springs, fresh off a runner-up finish behind Stanford in last year’s national championship. The Sooners are set to compete against Air Force, Arizona State, Nebraska and Stanford in their first event of the year.
The 2021 NCAA Championships marked OU’s 10th straight appearance in the national finals, but the last two trips have brought losses to the Cardinal. Stanford will continue to be a familiar opponent this season, as the Sooners are set to meet the Cardinal twice during the regular season before a likely rematch in the postseason.
“We know the talent they have,” head coach Mark Williams said Friday. “We’d like to be able to put our best foot forward in the early part of the year and be competitive with the top team.”
Oklahoma’s 2022 schedule also boasts matchups with Big Ten foes Ohio State and Nebraska. The Sooners most recently met Ohio State at the NCAA Qualifier last season and defeated the Buckeyes 406.190-394.956 to advance to the NCAA Championships. They then met Nebraska in the finals, where the Sooners finished second ahead of the fourth place Cornhuskers.
“We’re always looking toward the postseason,” Williams said. “These will be good stepping stones along the way. “Ohio State has been a rival for the twenty years I’ve been head coach. Having them at home will be nice.”
Williams didn’t shy away from the challenges the Sooners have faced leading up to their season opener, and really, since the COVID-19 pandemic’s outset.
Coronavirus robbed OU of a national championship chance when the 2020 season was canceled. In 2021, the Sooners needed new avenues to navigate the pandemic. That included using Virtius, a virtual platform created by a former Stanford gymnast which allowed teams to compete remotely from their own facilities, mitigating travel issues and expenses.
“The last two years have been a very difficult mental health challenge for everyone,” Williams said. “I’d say about half my team has had issues with COVID. It’s caused us to be very flexible with how we do our planning. This is not the normal preparation we’re used to.
“Health wise, we’re not gonna have everybody we want in the lineup (for the season opener) but we’re looking at the next man up mentality to try to hobble together a good start to the season.”
Faced with those health issues, Williams has called upon some of his more experienced gymnasts to step up and lead his squad. The departure of 2021 senior captains Gage Dyer and Matt Wenske has left additional openings in the OU lineup.
Vitaliy Guimaraes, who’s earned all-american honors three consecutive seasons on floor, vault and in the all-around, is now a senior, which comes with additional expectations.
“He will be very key this year,” Williams said. “We’ll need his leadership and presence on the floor.”
Williams also expressed confidence that sophomore Zach Nunez will build on his freshman season and freshman Fuzzy Benas is already prepared to contribute. The Sooners and Williams hope to see the first fruits of that when the Rocky Mountain Open begins at 7 p.m CT on Jan. 15.