Jan. 30, 2008
by Jeff Smith
Penn State head men's gymnastics coach Randy Jepson likes what he has seen from junior standout Casey Sandy. He refers to Sandy as the team anchor and notes that he particularly likes his humility and character. You can also bet he likes the fact that he really didn't have recruit the two-time defending Big Ten Gymnast of the Week either.
See it took some time for Sandy to realize whether or not he wanted to attend college in the United States, or to attend college at all. Born in Montreal, Quebec, Sandy attended prep school in Brampton, Ontario, and began to post impressive marks in gymnastics. Still, Sandy went unnoticed to Jepson, who in his 24 years at Penn State, including 17 as head coach, has unquestionably had a keen eye for talent. In fact, the only time Jepson ever heard from Sandy was when he checked his e-mail or the mailbox for letters and videos that had been sent from the Canadian product.
There is reason for the delayed recruiting process. At the time Sandy was more concerned about working with the Canadian National Team, but his coach, who happened to be Russian, returned to his homeland leaving Sandy really no other option than to attend college in the U.S.
"Penn State was always my first choice," Sandy said. "As soon as I came here on a visit, I made up my mind that I wanted to be here."
On a campus full of 18-year-old freshmen, Sandy found himself as a 21-year-old newcomer in a new setting. Gymnastics, however, offered him much more familiar surroundings.
Despite the delay between high school and college, Sandy took to the mat fresh off international competition and immediately began finding success. In the first five meets of his 2006 freshman season, Sandy captured all-around titles three times and recorded 21 top-three finishes. The conference office soon recognized his efforts as he was named Big Ten Gymnast of the Week in two of the first three weeks of the season. Sandy was ranked first in the nation in the pommel horse and third in the all-around.
Everything was going so right until practice one afternoon. During one of his routines on the high bar, Sandy's arm locked up, while his body kept rotating, resulting in a fractured ulna bone in his arm. It was a serious injury that ended his freshman campaign just as quick as he was finding success.
"It was pretty hard for me," he said. "I was able to stay positive with my injury though and was allowed to go to a couple of competitions throughout the season."
Jepson primarily wanted his freshman phenom to attend the Big Ten and NCAA Championships to get a feel for the atmosphere.
"I remember coach telling me I should absorb everything I could at NCAAs because we were going to be back next year," Sandy said.
With rehabilitation complete and his arm back to strength, Sandy returned to the mat as a sophomore with just as much success as he began to have early on as a freshman. He recorded 29 top-three finishes and took home All-Conference honors after placing second in the all-around (54.300) at last year's Big Ten Championships.
All signs were pointing toward a run at the school's 12th national championship at the end of the season. Jepson was correct in telling Sandy that he would be at the NCAA finals the following year. In a way, he had been there all season long. The Nittany Lions hosted the 2007 national finals in front of a raucous home crowd inside Rec Hall that would not be disappointed.
But once again, something went wrong.
"We were warming up for nationals and Casey turned his ankle," Jepson said. "He was only able to compete in the floor and vault, so we had to change our lineups at the last minute."
Still, Sandy went about his business in his calm demeanor and contributed in the events in which he was able to compete.
In the team finals, Sandy tied for first in the pommel horse (9.300) and set a career high in the still rings (9.550) to help Penn State capture the national title. He would later card a personal best 9.575 on the pommel horse in the individual event finals, which was second best and good enough for All-America honors. Sandy ended the season ranked as the nation's top pommel horse competitor, having claimed at least a share of 11 event titles and three runner-up finishes in 2007.
But it wasn't necessarily the results that pleased Jepson the most, but rather it was the manner in which Sandy responded to a second unfortunate injury.
"He went through it all without a whimper," Jepson said. "That's kind of how he operates and I think the way he responded to that really impressed me. I think he had an opportunity there to place All-America in the all-around, but obviously was not able to have the opportunity."
This season, not only is the program looking to successfully defend its national title, but it's also focused on keeping Sandy healthy.
"Coach is working with me this season to be at a consistent level throughout the year," Sandy said.
So far it is working.
No stranger to fast starts, Sandy has once again opened the season in impressive fashion. In each of the first three weeks of competition, Sandy has posted at least three event titles, including this past weekend when he claimed victory in the pommel horse, vault, and parallel bars. He ranks first overall in the latest GymInfo national rankings and holds the top spot as well in the all-around, floor exercise and parallel bars. He rates third in the pommel horse, fourth in the still rings, seventh in the high bar and 13th in the vault.
Jepson is pleased with his junior's performance so far this season, crediting his success to Sandy's quiet and coachable approach to the sport.
"He's one of those that really leads by example and is a good model for the rest to follow," he said.
The Nittany Lion mentor lauds Sandy already as one of the world's top all-around performers and admits he would not be surprised if he swept every event at nationals this season.
Recently Sandy competed for his native Canada at the 2007 World Championships in Germany. It was there he placed 25th in all-around, while earning his top event scores in the vault and parallel bars. The clock is certainly ticking for Sandy to earn his way into the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. He will attempt to make the team at the Canadian Nationals in late May.
But while Sandy's career is nowhere near conclusion, Jepson points out that his prodigy has "big aspirations academically" and hopes to become a pharmacist.
Perhaps that is a step in the right direction seeing that this year both Jepson and Sandy are focused on finding a way to keep him healthy.
In the meantime, Sandy continues to find a way to keep winning, noting that consistency is the most important task right now.
Sure it may have taken a little longer for him to venture to the States for college, but clearly the decision he made was the right one.
And for Jepson, Sandy is quickly turning out to be one of his best "mail" recruits yet.