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The Climb Continues


TUMBLER'S TALES
By Shannon McNamara for WVUsports.com
January 09, 2014 10:10 AM

Freshman Nicolette Swoboda will see her action as an all-arounder in her first career meet Friday.
Dale Sparks/All-Pro Photography photo
Climb Higher. The West Virginia University gymnastics team adopted the motto in 2013, repeating the phrase at every opportunity, hoping it would push them past their 2012 success, when the squad earned its best-ever score (195.9) at an NCAA Regional Championships and toward a bright future in the Big 12 Conference.
 
The Mountaineers did climb in 2013. The squad scored 196.0 or better in every regular-season home meet at the WVU Coliseum, a feat previously never achieved in program history, and finished the season with a 13-9 record. WVU earned its first victory in the Big 12, defeating a visiting Iowa State, 196.15-194.825, at the WVU Coliseum on Feb. 10.
 
Yet, the few steps forward were not enough for a program hungry for its first trip back to the NCAA National Gymnastics Championships in 14 years. Therefore, instead of turning toward a new motto in 2014, third-year coach Jason Butts and the Mountaineers have opted to continue their climb.
 
Pushing the team this season – the opportunity to prove their peers wrong. Ranked No. 24 in the 2013 GymInfo Coaches’ Preseason Poll, the Mountaineers were left off this year’s list.
 
“That has been the main motivating factor for this team over the last few weeks,” Butts explained. “We want to come out of the gate at full speed; we don’t want to wait to prove ourselves. We want to put up good scores right away so everyone knows they underestimated us. We want our opponents to know that we are prepared for this year.”
 
The Mountaineers open their new climb this Friday, Jan. 10, at No. 21 Kentucky, with No. 15 Penn State (1-0) and Ball State (1-0), at 7 p.m., at Memorial Coliseum in Lexington, Ky. This is the fifth time in six years WVU will open its season away from the WVU Coliseum.
 
“I like being on the road first because this team is used to the Coliseum,” explained Butts. “We’ve been training in Cary Gym for so long – I like the excitement of going on the road first. It’s a great way to kick off the year with a lot of adrenaline. I can’t wait to see how this team reacts out of its comfort zone.”
 
Back for Seconds
 
The Mountaineers return to the gym in 2014 for their second season in the Big 12 Conference.
 
WVU takes to the road for its first-ever Big 12 regular-season meet away from the WVU Coliseum in February, as the squad will meet Iowa State in Ames, Iowa, on Feb. 7. The team will then face Oklahoma, the 2013 NCAA National Championships runners-up and two-time reigning conference champions, Michigan and Alabama at The Perfect 10 Challenge on Feb. 21, at the Cox Arena, in Oklahoma City. The meet features three top-seven teams, as the Crimson Tide, the 2011 and 2012 national champions, finished third at last year’s championships, and the Wolverines placed seventh. The gymnasts will compete on podium, the first time any current Mountaineer has competed on podium at the collegiate level.
 
Though WVU will not play host to a Big 12 Conference regular-season meet, the Mountaineers will welcome both league opponents to Morgantown, as the 2014 Big 12 Gymnastics Championship is set for Saturday, March 22, at 4 p.m., at the WVU Coliseum. It marks the first time a Big 12 Conference Championship will be held on the WVU campus.
 
Road Warriors
 
The Mountaineers’ 2014 road slate will certainly challenge the team, as the squad will face eight teams ranked in the 2014 GymInfo Coaches’ Preseason Poll.
 
Following their season-opening challenge this Friday, the Mountaineers will travel to No. 24 Maryland on Jan. 17.
 
The Perfect 10 Challenge awaits WVU on Feb. 21. The Mountaineers will play host to No. 19 Ohio State on March 2 before traveling to Gainesville, Fla., for a dual meet against the defending national champion and No. 1-ranked Florida Gators on March 7. WVU will conclude its road schedule back in College Park, Md., against the Terrapins on March 16.
 
“This is our toughest schedule since I’ve been associated with the program,” said Butts. “This slate has been a long time in the making. It’s a great challenge for the team, but going against this type of competition will only help our road scores.
 
“I maintain that you’re only as good as your competition, and we’re really going to see where this program stands this year. I think it’s great that we will meet a lot of teams that garner national exposure, and I think that motivates our team to do the best it can against top squads. I fully expect the Mountaineers to rise up to the level of these teams.”
 
Follow the Leaders
 
Four seniors return to lead the Mountaineers in 2014: Amanda Carpenter, Hope Sloanhoffer, Erica Smith and Bethany Yurko. Butts does not name team captains.
 
Sloanhoffer’s Last Stand
           
Sloanhoffer is expected to conclude her career near the top of many Mountaineer all-time lists. The Cornwall, N.Y., native needs less than nine points to break onto the WVU Top 20 Career Points chart, as she enters the season just outside the list with 1,368.975 points.
           
Having competed in 26 of 38 career meets as an all-arounder, Sloanhoffer ranks No. 4 all-time with 18 39.0+ scores. She paced the Mountaineers in 2013 and earned 468.15 points, the program’s 38th-best single-season point total.
           
Sloanhoffer finished her junior season ranked No. 42 nationally, No. 8 in the Southeast region and No. 6 in the Big 12 in the all-around with a 39.16 regional qualifying score (RQS). One of the team’s strongest beam and vault workers, she also ranked No. 13 (9.83 RQS) and No. 23 (9.81) regionally on each event, respectively.
           
“Hope is doing the best gymnastics of her life,” said Butts. “Her vault is just as dynamic as it was during her freshman season, her floor routine looks amazing and her bars is the best it’s been at WVU. I’m counting on her consistency this year.”
 
Fresh Skills
           
Seven newcomers join the Mountaineers this season: sophomore transfer Lindsey Litten (Central Michigan), and freshmen Brooklyn Doggette, Alexa Goldberg, Emma Lasker, Mackenzie Myers, Rachel Sine and Nicolette Swoboda.
           
Goldberg and Swoboda have potential to see time on all four events, while Litten should provide needed depth to the uneven bars lineup. Additionally, Lasker will push for a spot on the vault lineup, Myers will push on floor and Doggette is poised to see time on beam and bars.
           
Be Our Guest!
           
The Mountaineers will play host to the annual “Beauty and the Beast” meet on Friday, Feb. 14, at 6 p.m., at the WVU Coliseum. The WVU gymnastics team will compete against former East Atlantic Gymnastics League foe Pitt, while the wrestling team will compete against Clarion simultaneously.
           
A crowd of 2,522 fans, the sixth-best attendance mark in program history, saw the Mountaineers defeat Iowa State, 196.15-194.825, at last year’s “Beauty and the Beast.”
 
Event-by-Event Preview
 
Vault
           
The Mountaineers’ vault lineup took a big hit with the graduation of Chelsea Goldschrafe, Kaylyn Millick and Alaska Richardson. Often the lineup’s anchor, Richardson tallied four event wins last season and finished the year ranked No. 7 in the Big 12 Conference with a 9.865 RQS. Millick ranked No. 9 in the conference with a 9.825 RQS.
           
Despite the departures, WVU returns one of the top vaulters in the nation in sophomore Jaida Lawrence. An All-Big 12 vault honoree, she finished in the top three eight times in 2013, including two separate streaks of three straight wins. Lawrence vaulted below 9.85 only twice. She finished the year with a team-best 9.863 average and ranked No. 43 nationally with a 9.89 RQS.
           
Also back this season are Sloanhoffer, ranked No. 10 in the Big 12 in 2013 with a 9.81 RQS, Yurko, and juniors Dayah Haley and Lia Salzano. Haley has opened the lineup in all but two career meets.
           
“Hope looks better than she has in previous seasons,” said assistant coach Travis Doak. “Jaida is going to be great this year, and Dayah will continue to be a force.”
           
Doak believes the lineup has the potential for explosiveness, noting that Smith, Lasker and Swoboda could earn a competition spot this year.
           
“There’s a ton of potential with this unit,” he continued. “By the end of the season, we should be incredible. We may be just okay in January, but I’m excited for the later meets.”
 
Senior Hope Sloanhoffer finished her junior season ranked No. 42 nationally, No. 8 in the Southeast region and No. 6 in the Big 12 in the all-around with a 39.16 regional qualifying score (RQS).
Dale Sparks/All-Pro Photography photo
Uneven Bars
           
The excitement around the Mountaineers’ 2014 uneven bars lineup has reached a fevered pitch. One of the team’s weaker units over the last few seasons, WVU looks to consistently score 49.0-plus each meet this year.
           
Tops among the lineup’s returners are Smith and Sloanhoffer. The duo ranked No. 24 in the Southeast region in 2013 with 9.78 RQSs. Combined, they tallied eight top-five finishes last year.
           
“We changed Erica’s routine, and I believe she’s going to be more consistent this year,” said Butts. “This new routine will turn some heads.”
           
Additional returners include Haley, Salzano and Lawrence.
           
“Jaida has improved tremendously,” Butts said. “She is cleaner than she was as a freshman. While she built up to a 9.8 score last year, she should be able to attain that score right off the bat this season.”
           
Butts is high on the freshmen’s potential, noting that Goldberg could potentially score 9.8 or better on a weekly basis. Swoboda and Litten also are expected to step into the lineup, while Sine and Doggette are poised to see action down the road.
           
“Alexa could anchor this lineup,” said Butts. “She packs a lot of power into her small frame and competes a really exciting routine.”
 
Balance Beam
           
The Mountaineers’ beam lineup was much improved in 2013, scoring 49.0 or better six times, including a season-best 49.225 score, their best mark since earning a program-record 49.55 in 2004. Millick, Sloanhoffer and junior Beth Deal all earned season-high scores of 9.875 and were ranked in the conference’s top 10. Of the squad’s final six counters of the 2013 season, only Millick doesn’t return.
           
“Having so many returners is helpful because everyone gained a lot of confidence last year,” said assistant coach Bridget Boyd. “There shouldn’t be many lineup changes this season.”
           
In addition to Sloanhoffer and Deal, who will compete a new mount this season, Carpenter, Smith and Salzano should all see time in the lineup. Haley gained experience as a sophomore and will push for a lineup spot this year, while Goldberg, Swoboda, Doggette and sophomore Melissa Idell will add depth.
           
“All our newcomers have a unique style that adds a spark of creativity to our presentation this season,” Boyd continued. “Also, Dayah is looking great – unbelievable improvement.
           
“I have a lot of early confidence in this unit. I’m glad we have so many upperclassmen that can compete in this lineup. That will allow us to focus on our three other events.”
 
Floor Exercise
           
The loss of Goldschrafe, Millick and Richardson also will be felt on floor, as they each competed in all but one meet last season. Richardson ranked No. 48 nationally, No. 4 in the Big 12, with a 9.88 RQS, while Millick was the team’s most consistent gymnast and ranked No. 6 in the conference with a 9.875 RQS.
           
Doak is confident that the Mountaineers will maintain their national prominence on floor.
           
“I actually think we may be better than we were in 2013,” he explained. “I have a lot of trust in the athletes that will be competing, and I’m excited in the newcomers’ potential.”
           
Among the newcomers expected to see time this year are Goldberg, Swoboda and Myers.
           
“Nicolette hits,” said Doak. “Alexa is going to be a standout and a crowd favorite.”
           
Haley broke into the lineup last season and competed five times. She brings back her full-in opening pass and is expected to be a season-long contributor this year.
           
Also back are Idell, Lawrence and Sloanhoffer, who will bring back the choreography and music from her freshman season.
           
“Can we replace the scores we lost right off the bat? Probably not,” said Butts. “Hopefully, we’re going to get six consistent 9.8 routines, and I think that will take us farther this year. Our routines are stronger this year, and our difficulty level is higher. This is a scary change, but it’s exciting, too.”
 
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