Year One Lessons

  • By Shannon McNamara
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  • June 24, 2012 02:48 PM
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MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - Despite a first season that self-admittedly far exceeded West Virginia University gymnastics coach Jason Butts’ wildest expectations, the Mountaineer mentor, when prodded, can easily pinpoint his favorite moment.

“I loved watching Beth Deal nail her beam routine at the East Atlantic Gymnastics League (EAGL) Championship,” Butts said through a smile, no doubt replaying each skill the then-freshman accomplished en route to winning the individual title and sealing the Mountaineers’ league-best seventh championship with a 196.4 score. “Not only was our team jumping up and down and going crazy, but our fans also were going wild. I think we had more fans in that gym (Pitt’s Fitzgerald Field House) than any other team. It was just awesome to see the support.

“That was one of my favorite moments of the year. It seemed like everything came together right there.”

On the cusp of his second season at the helm, Butts is still coming to terms with the end of his first year.

“It doesn’t feel like it’s been a year,” he laughed. “Some days, it feels like it’s been five years, and other days it feels like the year went by so fast. I think it was an amazing year. I couldn’t have asked for more from this team. They performed well and peaked at just the right time. It was fun.”

Butts believes the key to the Mountaineers’ success in 2012 was the team bought into his simple coaching philosophy of constantly fighting. That tunnel-vision helped WVU to a 21-5 record, the team’s first 20-win season since 2008, and its league-best seventh EAGL title. The Mountaineers capped off the year with a fifth-place showing at the NCAA Auburn Regional Championships, scoring 195.9 points, the program’s top regional score, and ranked No. 21 in the nation.

“We started off the year in the best shape I think we’ve been in since I arrived (in 2006),” explained Butts. “There were a few bumps in the road, but the team never stopped fighting. To know that you can get a team to buy into an idea, even in your first year as head coach, was very rewarding.”

The Mountaineers’ familiarity with Butts no doubt aided the coach’s transition. A five-year assistant under 37-year coach Linda Burdette-Good, Butts retained assistant coach Travis Doak when he was hired last April. He then brought Bridget Boyd, a coach at the previous five WVU Gymnastics Camps, onto the staff.

“Travis, Bridget and I gel so well as a unit. We offer the team a three-dimensional coaching staff that is always encouraging, positive and well-organized,” Butts said. “I think that familiarity and united front helped everyone, the coaches and the student-athletes, make the transition.

“The team also saw a whole different side of me, and I think it was encouraging. I think they were comforted by the fact that they knew me and knew where I was coming from, but that they also didn’t know everything that was coming. The coaches held every gymnast accountable on every issue, and I think that fact is what prompted the whole team to buy into me as a coach.”

By no means was Butts’ first season perfect. The road proved rough for the Mountaineers, as they struggled early in the season to score a 194.0 away from the WVU Coliseum. Then, after a quad-meet victory at Maryland on Feb. 18, the team missed four-of-six beam routines and dropped a 195.75-194.225 decision at New Hampshire on Feb. 25; the defeat was WVU’s only EAGL loss of the season.

“In the past, it was always frustrating for me to watch when our student-athletes struggled because I felt like I wasn’t doing a good job coaching them,” said Butts. “This year, when we struggled as a whole team, I found myself getting more frustrated because I knew it was going to be my name tied to that loss. All of the sudden, I do have a win-loss record. I take a lot of pride in making sure that the overall stuff is being taken care of. I don’t want to walk in an arena and drop a meet like we did in New Hampshire.”

The Mountaineers did not dwell long on the loss to the Wildcats, as they followed that performance with four straight wins, including victories over No. 8 Arkansas, No. 13 Missouri and No. 19 Denver.

“The word that this team is throwing around a lot lately is accountability,” Butts enthused. “I also used that word a lot this year. You have to make every day count toward that goal. That’s going to be one of our main points of emphasis going into the 2013 season – every day, every action. Every action is a step, and you have to make sure that step is in the right direction, with the ultimate goal being a trip to the national championships.”

Butts believes the work the team puts in at Cary Gym – not only during the season, but also during preseason (September – December) and optional open gyms in the summer – helps build confidence in each of his gymnasts. Confidence, he says, can be the difference between a fifth-place finish at the regional championships and a trip to the national championships.

“This team learned to be confident as last season progressed,” he recalled. “As prepared as we were at the beginning of the year, we weren’t confident. They learned to be confident. They realized that even if someone fell, they didn’t need to push for perfection. They learned to fall back on their training. That’s why we practice so much.

“They don’t need to be perfect; they just need to trust their training in Cary Gym and rely on what they’ve learned. I think they saw that concept work, and that helped their confidence. I believe that confidence is going to roll into next season like a tidal wave.”

Could that tidal wave lead to a second straight 20-win season? Butts knows his team is going to have to work hard to replicate the success it achieved in his first season.

“It is going to get harder to get that many wins because as we progress up through the rankings, we’re going to have to schedule higher and higher ranked teams,” he explained. “That’s just a reality. Also, our new home in the Big 12 Conference features two tough teams in Oklahoma and Iowa State, and we will face them each year. A 195.0 score is not going to be good enough anymore. We need those 196.4 scores consistently, and we know we’d like to reach a 197.0.

“This season was a step in the right direction; it was a good launching pad. I think the coaches established immediately after regionals that even though this season was great, it still wasn’t good enough to get us to where we want to be. That’s why I’m going to keep driving this team to work hard. They all saw how a constant stream of positivity can pay dividends. My hope is to continue that success in year two.”