Jan. 6—K.J. Kindler is no stranger to being in this position.
After winning the national championship last season, which included a historic comeback in the NCAA Finals, the Oklahoma women's gymnastics team can clinch a second-straight title win this season.
The OU head coach has been here before. The last team to win back-to-back titles was her Sooners, who won national championships in 2016 and 2017.
For Kindler, it's both a goal and something the Sooners can't let distract them.
"My team knows they won last year. I can't erase that out of their heads, even though that's the mentality," Kindler said. "But I do think after five championships, we've learned how to handle it a little differently. After that first one, I would say there was a lot of celebrating, maybe even some relaxing and some relief. 'We finally did it.' Something we've been striving for for so long.
"It is a different challenge than it is for someone coming off third (place) or fifth. Our theme this year is 'driven' because we wanted them to remember that we're still striving for things."
While the Sooners focus on remaining "driven", they'll have to fend off other teams looking to dethrone them.
The Sooners enter the season as the No. 1 ranked team in the country, and they return most of their key pieces from last season. Even their underclassmen, including sophomores Jordan Bowers and Danae Fletcher, played crucial roles on last season's team.
They have plenty of experienced veterans, too, including fifth-year seniors Olivia Trautmen and Allie Stern, senior Ragan Smith and juniors Audrey Davis and Katherine LeVasseur. Of the eight gymnasts that competed in every meet last season, the Sooners return seven to this year's squad.
"This team has so much talent," Stern said. "We didn't lose that many athletes last year and we're only building up. We have so much depth and we're ready to showcase all of it."
The Sooners did lose a few seniors from last year, most notably Carly Woodard, but the Sooners are confident in their new freshmen. Ava Siegfeldt and Faith Torrez both have experience as elite-level gymnasts in high school, and Kindler hinted they could play big roles this season.
"Faith and Ava are going to be doing a lot, probably seven events between the two of them," Kindler said. "So they're going to have a big impact on our team. So even though our team seems more veteran because we only have two freshmen, those two freshmen are really impactful and they're going to be competing a lot. So it's going to be hugely important that some of our older athletes kind of calm them."
Those freshmen, and the team as a whole, won't have much time to settle in.
They open the season Saturday at the Super 16 meet in Las Vegas, Nevada, which includes preseason No. 6-ranked Auburn, No. 4 Michigan and No. 16 UCLA. They open their home slate against No. 3 Utah on Jan. 22 and their schedule includes head-to-head matches with No. 2 Florida and No. 5 Alabama.
It's not going to be easy, and the defending champions know they're the primary target of opposing teams. That's the way Kindler likes it.
"I think my first year, the schedule was set and we went undefeated (in the regular season). But the schedule wasn't challenging enough," Kindler said. "When it came down to postseason, we really weren't prepared because we hadn't seen the best of the best. It was kind of in that moment I was like, 'We need to see harder competition. We need to be tested. We need to lose or be fighting for our lives in order to prepare them for these big moments at the end of the year.'
"To me, that's hugely important in preparing our team. Win or lose, they're learning one way or the other."
This season, the Sooners have the chance to win a sixth national championship and secure back-to-back titles for the second time in program history.
But the Sooners are only focused on themselves.
"Our angle is to win," Trautmen said. "We all have that in the back of our minds. We all know that's the common goal. We're going to do whatever we can to get there. But we don't talk about it too much because talking about it can put pressure on everybody.
"Every team we compete against is super good, so we're ready to just do our best gymnastics and see where it takes us."
Jesse Crittenden is the sports editor of The Transcript and covers OU athletics. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 405-366-3580