Butts: Big 12 Lifts WVU Profile
For the first time in years, the West Virginia University gymnastics team will be just like its campus peers – members of the same athletic conference.
Ever since West Virginia joined the Big East in 1996, the gymnastics program has competed in the East Atlantic Gymnastics League (EAGL) comprised of schools from New Hampshire to North Carolina. Now, the Mountaineers will call the Big 12 Conference their new home and for second-year coach Jason Butts that will mean a lot less explaining to do.
“What's EAGL and why do you compete against New Hampshire?” are the questions Butts typically had to answer from recruits. Well, not any more.
“It's easier for us to talk about competing against the Big 12 and the SEC where before that wasn't the case,” he explained last week. “Not to say the EAGL wasn't a tough league to be in, but I'm excited.”
His excitement is two-fold. One, his athletes are now once again the same as their WVU peers competing in the same league and, two, the Big 12 opens up new recruiting possibilities for his program.
“I think the biggest thing for us is now we can say we are competing for a Big 12 title just like all of the other sports on campus, which was always a little bit confusing to recruits because they would look at West Virginia and they would see the Big East and they didn't understand what the EAGL was. That's exciting,” he said.
“The other thing that is exciting for us is that some of the best recruiting in gymnastics is in Oklahoma and Texas. Now we are going to be going into those recruiting areas and are going to be able to say, 'Hey we're going to be coming back to this area at least twice each year and you are going to be able to go up against teams that you are familiar with.’
“With recruiting we were already in those markets, but it's going to get us to where we have a lot more draw,” he said.
The Big 12 doesn’t have many teams competing in gymnastics - only Oklahoma and Iowa State are left after the departures of Nebraska and Missouri - but the conference will still remain viable because of the strength of Oklahoma, Iowa State and now West Virginia. Since 2002, the Big 12 has sent at least one school to the 12-team national championships and during that span of time three teams went to the event in 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2010. Also, during the last 10 years seven Big 12 teams have gone to the Super Six, including two teams each in 2006 and 2011.
Oklahoma, under veteran coach K.J. Kindler, has qualified for the last nine NCAA championships and has won three straight regional titles. In 2012, the Sooners just missed making their third straight Super Six appearance in a sport that has only seen four different programs claim national titles in its long history.
Butts believes Kindler has Oklahoma in the hunt to become the fifth school to make the list.
“They are usually in the Super Six,” he said. (Oklahoma) and Florida are the ones knocking on the door.”
Iowa State, too, has enjoyed considerable success, especially now that coach Jay Ronayne is working with the Cyclones. Mountaineer fans certainly recall Ronayne’s tenure at WVU working with long-time coach Linda Burdette-Good. Actually, Ronayne was here the last time the Mountaineers made the national championships in 2000.
“Jay and I are great friends and I am excited to be in a conference with him,” said Butts.
As for the regular season schedule and advancement to regionals, Butts says much won’t change for the program. Butts believes the biggest boost will be to West Virginia’s profile nationally.
“Gymnastics is such a subjective sport but (going to the Big 12) definitely raises our credibility a little bit being in there with teams like Oklahoma and Iowa State,” Butts said. “I think that will help us with the judges. The regional is always depending upon scores and where you are ranked. To be able to go to the Big 12 championship, or to be able to host that here, is definitely going to help us in the judging department.
“We are going to see Oklahoma and Iowa State every year. For the next two years we are going to go back and forth,” he continued. “Hopefully starting in '15 we go there every year and they come here every year and then the championship it will rotate around. One of the things we are looking at doing is having a kickoff meet at the beginning of the year that will always be in Dallas. Basically, they have a huge invitational there and we would be like the college session.”
And although the conference championship meet will only be comprised of three teams, Butts said it will continue to be extremely competitive and will serve as a big boost to the team’s season-ending regional qualifying score if they can perform well.
“Every one of those teams can win it,” he explained. “You can't go into that thing making a lot of mistakes or those other two teams will blow you out of the water. A shorter meet is better for the fans and better for the athletes and it will be pretty intense.”
The Big 12 championship has the same setup as NCAA regionals in that each program can only have 15 athletes on the floor for the meet.
“The Big 12 also enforces that rule which we never dealt with at the EAGL championships and I think that is great,” Butts said. “I think it will get us ready for that NCAA regional meet and hopefully qualifying on to the nationals. I like that our postseason will be consistent across the board now versus encountering some of the rules in place at regionals for the first time.”
Next year’s Big 12 championships will take place at Iowa State and will count as an away meet for West Virginia’s regional qualifying score.
“(Scores are) how we are judged to get into the postseason,” Butts explained. “Our win-loss record doesn't mean anything as far as postseason for us. (WVU athletes) see their performance and they base it on a team from the SEC and they see the scores they are getting and sometimes they feel like they weren't judged as well as these guys were in a sport that is all based on judging and subjectivity. It's natural to compare that and I think we are just as good as Oklahoma and Iowa State.”
Do the Mountaineers have a shot at winning the Big 12 in their first year competing in the league? Why not, says Butts.
“We compete in 24 routines and we've got the same 24 10.0 start values that Oklahoma and Iowa State have,” he said. “At the end of the day it is whoever fights to the last tenth and who stays on the equipment. Everybody has an equal opportunity to fall. I think we can step in and compete for a Big 12 championship right off the bat.”
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