MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – On the cusp of its sixth meet of the 2014 season, the West Virginia University gymnastics team is embracing the cold, hard truth – it’s a young squad.
More than half of this year’s Mountaineers (4-4, 0-1 Big 12) are freshmen or sophomores. Of those nine gymnasts, three are contributing eight routines, and all but two have competed at least one routine this season.
Third-year coach Jason Butts does not make excuses for his squad, but he knows that the Mountaineers battle their youth and inexperience on a daily basis. Almost halfway through the year, he sat down this week for a midseason review.
WVUsports.com: Five meets into the 2014 season, is it fair to label your Mountaineers as a young team?
Coach Butts: I was just thinking about that last week – we’ve never had a season where almost half of our lineup spots are filled by freshmen or sophomores. We’ve always been top-heavy with seniors and juniors. At least one third of our lineup has never competed collegiately before this year.
Did you expect to rely on underclassmen this season?
Yes, because they are so talented. For us to get better on a yearly basis, our talented gymnasts, regardless of class, have to compete. We have never had a freshman class turn it on this much in the beginning of a season like this class. It always seemed like it took our freshmen a full year to adjust.
In particular, Nicolette (Swoboda) and Alexa (Goldberg) have caught on quickly. They’ve been able to knock it out from the very beginning.
With underclassmen, sometimes you have to take the good with the bad, like inexperience and nerves. Have you felt that’s been the case so far this season?
I think we need to stay focused on the highs, because we have so many highs. If you look at our four lineups, depending on the event, five of the six routines are capable of scoring 9.8 or better.
I’ve been a little bit surprised this year. I was hoping we’d come out of the gate firing on all cylinders, but we didn’t. In retrospect, it makes sense. Some of our problems, though, have come from the upperclassmen, and that’s been a surprise, too.
I think we’re starting to figure everything out. What I think we can expect now is for us to gain momentum as we move forward. We make progress every weekend. Last weekend, we scored our highest road score of the season (194.175 at Iowa State on Feb. 7). That is progress. The performance wasn’t what I wanted, but it was a lot better than the last performance we had on the road.
I think we’re building momentum, and I’m glad that at this point of the year, we still have a whole half of a season to go.
Mid-February seems to be the time of the season that collegiate teams put together their first complete meet. Do you believe your squad is there?
I honestly thought we were there going into Iowa State. I think it’s a confidence issue. I’m glad we’re at the WVU Coliseum this weekend. Once that complete meet is in place, I think we’re going to see this team knock their performances out of the park from that point forward.
We had some great practices this week. The mistakes that we’ve made, they fixed them at the first practice of the week. We’re getting gymnasts to step-up and compete routines they’ve never competed. (Senior) Erica Smith
will compete vault this week. Hopefully, she’ll be our answer at that spot.
I think our floor lineup is set. Our bars and beam lineups are phenomenal. I’m hoping to see the team put everything together this weekend.
Having said that – I remind this team on a daily basis not to put all our eggs in one basket; we can’t go into this weekend thinking we need six brand new scores. We have a couple of decent scores right now, and if we had to count one of those toward our regional qualifying score (RQS), that’s fine. We need to focus on hitting 24-for-24 routines.
Over the years, there’s been a fear that the team may peak too soon in a season. Do you fear that this year?
This year is reminding me of the 2012 season. We had some rough road experiences that year. I think that that team got frustrated with the situation, and the coaching staff was able to guide that frustration into a positive result of fighting all the time.
I told the team last Sunday that I didn’t want us to be the comeback kids, but now we’re the comeback kids. I challenged them that day. I want to see who will step up and fight, through the end, like this team has done in the past.
The National Championship is not a long shot. We’re going to the NCAA Regional Championships this year, and that’s after a lackluster January. Our potential is so great. It’s all still there. Anything is still possible. We’re like a powder keg ready to explode. This is the most talented team since I’ve been at WVU. We just need to stay focused on the fight.
The Mountaineers return to the WVU Coliseum tonight and play host to Pitt at 6 p.m. in the annual “Beauty & the Beast” meet. The WVU wrestling team will compete against Clarion simultaneously. Admission is $1, courtesy of United Bank. WVU students are admitted free with a valid WVU student I.D. In addition to the two contests, representatives from the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee will be painting faces and balloon animals will be distributed at the Blue Gate concourse prior to the start of competition.