Gymnastics Is Ready for the Climb

  • By Shannon McNamara
  • |
  • January 09, 2013 12:49 PM
  • |
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - One can get breathless counting off the list of honors the 2012 West Virginia University gymnastics team collected: 21 wins, a program-best finish at the NCAA Auburn Regional Championships, a league-best seventh East Atlantic Gymnastics League (EAGL) title, four individual conference titles, a season-ending ranking and five victories over ranked opponents.

How does a team that lost only two seniors follow such an impressive campaign? Second-year coach Jason Butts believes the Mountaineers have the tools to surpass the lofty standard they set last year.

“As good as the 2012 season was, I believe this year is going to be much better,” Butts explained. “This team doesn’t need motivation – the want to improve and to make the national championships is already inside each of these gymnasts. It’s amazing to witness the conviction of this team. The girls know how many people support them unconditionally, and I think they want to do well for everyone who stands behind them.”

The march to the 2013 NCAA National Championships begins this week, as the No. 24-ranked Mountaineers open their first Big 12 Conference season at former league-foe Pitt this Friday, Jan. 11, at 7 p.m., at Fitzgerald Field House.

Seniors Set the Mountaineer Standard
The Mountaineers will follow the lead of three returning seniors – Chelsea Goldschrafe, Kaylyn Millick and Alaska Richardson. All three are expected to compete on at least three events, and Goldschrafe and Millick could see significant time in the all-around, too.

Goldschrafe, a 2012 All-EAGL Second Team Vault honoree, emerged as an asset on the apparatus last season, as she scored a career-best 9.85 four times. Always steady on floor, she opened the rotation five times as a junior. She competed as an all-arounder three times and scored a career-best 39.05.

In her second season as a Mountaineer, Millick solidified her place as a key point contributor, as she earned 428.4 points, the third-best team total, in 13 meets, eight of which she competed as an all-arounder. A four-time All-EAGL honoree, she set or matched career highs on each event last season and tallied four all-around scores of 39.0 or better, including a career-best 39.225 score in a 10th-place finish at the NCAA Auburn Regional. Millick is the team’s top bars worker and is expected to anchor the lineup.

One of the nation’s most talented and entertaining floor workers, Richardson is the Mountaineers’ most-explosive gymnast and has potential to earn national rankings on vault and floor this season. She competed on both events in all 13 meets in 2012 and earned All-EAGL First Team honors. Richardson scored 9.8 or better on floor 10 times last season, including a career-best 9.9, and all but one of her marks counted toward the team’s scores. Poised to lead the team by example, she also will add beam to her repertoire this season.

Sloanhoffer Steadies Mountaineers
After a sophomore campaign that saw her emerge as a top 25 gymnast, junior Hope Sloanhoffer returns as one of the team’s most consistent competitors.

The 2012 EAGL Gymnast of the Year, as well as the league’s all-around, vault and bars champion, Sloanhoffer is expected to contribute to in-meet leadership this year. Hitting her best college gymnastics, she is expected to compete near the back of the lineup on all four events this season. She fine-tuned all of her routines over the summer and will compete a new floor routine this season.

Sloanhoffer, a seven-time All-EAGL First Team honoree, was the league’s No. 1-ranked all-around gymnast each week last season. She just missed qualifying for the 2012 NCAA Championships, as she placed sixth in the all-around (39.325) at the NCAA Auburn Regional. Sloanhoffer currently ranks No. 11 in the Mountaineer record book with 10 career scores of 39.0 or better, all earned as a sophomore, and has scored 9.8 or better in 56 of 88 career routines.

Top Point Earners Return
Five the of the Mountaineers’ top six point earners return from the 2012 season, including Sloanhoffer, the team’s two-time MVP, who earned a team-best 508.5 points in her first season competing all-around. All but two of her 52 routines counted toward the team’s score last season.

Also returning this season are Millick (428.4 points), Goldschrafe (396.525 points), Richardson (254.25 points) and sophomore Dayah Haley (221.125 points). The biggest loss of points comes from the graduation of Tina Maloney, as she ranked No. 2 on the team with 452.375 points.

Goldschrafe and Sloanhoffer are on the cusp of surpassing 1,000 career points, as they own 955.25 and 900.825 points, respectively. Millick also is likely to pass the 1,000-point plateau this season, as she owns 831.2 career points. Janáe Cox (2004-07) owns the WVU career-points record with 2,070.65 points.

Fresh Faces
Three freshmen join the Mountaineers this season – Gina Costa, Melissa Idell and Jaida Lawrence. Lawrence and Idell will look to contribute immediately.

Lawrence, a level 10 gymnasts out of New England Gymnastics Express, is strongest on vault and floor and may crack both lineups. A member of the 2011 Jamaican World Team and a five-time level 10 Junior Olympics qualifier, her powerful skill set gives her the ability to compete all-around.

Idell, a level 10 gymnasts at First State Gymnastics, was a state and regional qualifier. A graceful gymnasts with strong lines, she is a hidden talent that the coaches expect to impact the floor lineup.

Costa, a two-year level 10 national qualifier out of Airborne Gymnastics, won a combined 13 state and regional titles. She could see time on the uneven bars this season.

New Beginnings
The Mountaineers will compete in the Big 12 Conference this season alongside Oklahoma and Iowa State.

WVU has become familiar with conference success, as the team took a league-best seven titles, including the 2012 championship, in the EAGL; the Mountaineers never went more than four seasons between league championships. Prior to joining the EAGL in 1996, the Mountaineers won four straight Atlantic 10 Championships.

The Sooners are the reigning conference champions and have won five league titles, including four in the last five seasons, while the Cyclones have claimed two titles.

The 2013 Big 12 Championships will be held in Ames, Iowa, on March 23.

Ranked Among the Best
For the first time since 2010, the Mountaineers were ranked in the GymInfo Preseason Coaches’ Poll, as they checked-in at No. 24.

WVU finished the 2012 season ranked No. 21, its first season-ending ranking since 2009. The squad’s ranking was based on its national qualifying score.

Six of the Mountaineers’ 2013 opponents also are ranked – No. 4 Oklahoma, No. 5 Utah, No. 9 Oregon State, No. 10 Michigan, No. 20 Denver and No. 22 NC State.

Alabama, the two-time defending national champions, earned the top spot. UCLA is ranked No. 2, while Florida is No. 3. Stanford follows Utah at No. 6, while Nebraska is ranked No. 7 and LSU is No. 8.

Challenging Slate Awaits the Mountaineers
With hopes of climbing higher and reaching the NCAA Championships for the first time since 2000, the Mountaineers must first master a challenging schedule. The 2013 slate features six teams that are ranked in the 2013 GymInfo Preseason Coaches’ Poll, including 2012 Super Six team Utah.

The Mountaineers will compete in 10 regular-season meets – five at the WVU Coliseum and five on the road – and will face 17 opponents overall, including 2012 NCAA Championships participants Utah, Oklahoma and Oregon State.

WVU will open the season on the road throughout the month of January. In between trips to Pitt and NC State, the Mountaineers will travel to Salt Lake City for a quad-meet with the Utes, Southern Utah and Oregon State on Jan. 19, at the Huntsman Center. Utah gymnastics has averaged more than 11,000 fans per meet since 1992.

The Mountaineers will open their home schedule on Feb. 1 against Oklahoma, Western Michigan and William & Mary. Other home-schedule highlights include the return of “Beauty and the Beast” on Feb. 10; the gymnastics team will play host to Iowa State that day, while the WVU wrestling team will simultaneously compete against Ohio University.

WVU will compete in its first-ever Big 12 Championships on March 23, in Ames, Iowa, before returning to the Coliseum and playing host to the NCAA Morgantown Regional on April 6.

The Return of “Beauty and the Beast”
After a successful first-run in 2011, the popular “Beauty and the Beast” promotion will return to the WVU Coliseum on Sunday, Feb. 10. The Mountaineers will play host to Iowa State, while the WVU wrestling team will simultaneously compete against Ohio.

WVU defeated Michigan State, 194.0-192.575, in the first-ever “Beauty and the Beast,” in front of 3,206 fans, the third-best mark in program history.

Big 12 Gymnastics
Since 2002, the Big 12 Conference has been represented by at least one team at every National Championships. In that time span, a conference-best three teams have advanced to the NCAA 12-team meet in 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2010. Additionally, in the last 10 years, the conference has sent at least one team to the NCAA Super Six Championships seven times, including two teams in 2006 and 2011. Oklahoma just missed its third consecutive Super Six appearance in 2012, as the Sooners finished fourth in the championships’ first semifinal.

Season-ending rankings go hand-in-hand with championship appearances, and the Big 12 has had at least two teams ranked in the Top 15 nationally since 2002. Additionally, since 2003, at least one Big 12 team has ranked within the Top 15 nationally in average home attendance, with OU pacing the conference in 2012 with a No. 13 (2,022.25) ranking.

The Mountaineers’ vault lineups is one of the team’s deepest, as coach Butts sees at least 10 gymnasts capable of scoring this season.

“What’s exciting is we have some vaults return that didn’t even see a lot of competition time last season,” he explained. “We lost Tina, but we’re bringing in a really strong vault with Jaida. I think vault is going to be one of our strongest events this year – no one in the lineup should score below 9.8.”

Tops among the returners is Sloanhoffer, the 2012 EAGL vault co-champion. She finished her sophomore season ranked No. 47 in the nation with a 9.87 regional qualifying score (RQS). Also poised for a big year is Richardson. The lineup’s anchor, she earned all-league first team honors last season and finished the year ranked No. 15 in the southeast region with a 9.85 RQS. Goldschrafe also earned a season-ending regional ranking, as the All-EAGL Second Team honoree ranked No. 19.

“It’s fair to say all three of those vaults are in contention for some of the nation’s top marks this year,” Butts said.

Millick, Haley, junior Bethany Yurko and sophomore Lia Salzano all saw time on vault last season and are expected to contribute again this year. Along with Lawrence, junior Erica Smith and sophomore Beth Deal will look to push for a lineup spot.

Uneven Bars
The departure of graduate Nicole Roach will be felt hardest in the bars lineup, as she was the group’s rock over the last four seasons. Always dependable, she finished her final season ranked No. 24 in the region with a 9.785 RQS.

The good news is three regionally ranked gymnasts followed Roach in the lineup last season and all return this year with polished routines.

“I’ll be expecting a lot of consistency from Hope, Erica and Kaylyn,” said Butts. “Those three are our highest-scoring returners and are all capable of anchoring this unit. I honestly believe this is one of the strongest bars lineups we’ve had since I’ve been at WVU.”

Competing a solid double-layout dismount, Millick has emerged as the lineup’s likely anchor. She finished 2012 ranked No. 15 in the region and No. 5 in the EAGL and owns a career-best score of 9.9. Sloanhoffer, the EAGL’s outright champion, also scored 9.9 last season. Smith’s scoring potential is highest among the trio, as she competes a near-flawless Sheposh.

Haley is expected to once again open the rotation. Goldschrafe and Salzano will return to the lineup, while Yurko and Costa will push for time.

“Once again, we have some routines from last year that didn’t see consistent action,” Butts said. “Lia and Bethany are looking great. Gina is a talented bars worker, so we’re excited to hopefully get her in the lineup.”

Butts says the team’s philosophy is no different than year’s past.

“We always want to hit clean, 10.0 start-value routines,” he explained. “We have three tough road meets to start the season. I think if we can get through that stretch performing well, the possibility to add some more releases is there for us. I think we keep showing that we don’t need those skills to accomplish what we want to do.”

Balance Beam
“We have at least 10 routines that are meet-ready heading into the season,” assistant coach Bridget Boyd said assuredly. “We had a lot of routines last year that were ready to go but never did. Skill-wise, everyone is doing the same stuff. We’re focusing on their confidence level. I want to take out that slight little doubt that’s in their heads. If there’s something in their routines that they’re not comfortable with, we’ll change it up.”

The back-end of the beam lineup is talent heavy, as EAGL champ Deal, along with Millick and Sloanhoffer, all return. Deal and Sloanhoffer each passed the 9.9-plateau last year, with Sloanhoffer scoring a career-high 9.95, while Millick tallied 9.8 or better five times.

Junior Amanda Carpenter, an all-league second team honoree, emerged as a consistent competitor last season. Goldschrafe, Salzano and Smith also saw time in the lineup in 2012.

Richardson is expected to make her beam career debut this season, while Haley and Idell are in contention for competition time, too.

“One thing I’ve noticed is that Bridget is really working on this unit’s presentation,” added Butts. “The skills and routines are there. The difference is working on the confidence now, and not waiting to correct that when the season gets around.”

Boyd hopes that a more mature lineup with help overcome the little issues.

“We’re working on landings and getting rid of small errors,” she said. “The little stuff – like connections – will be better this year because everyone is one year older. I think this group has so many different options; there’s no excuse for something to go wrong.”

Floor Exercise
Earning a national ranking on floor is nothing new for the Mountaineers, but the team reached new heights in 2012, cracking the top 10 in the season’s first three weeks and peaking at No. 8 in the Jan. 30 GymInfo Poll.

The Mountaineers again are expected to earn high scores on floor, as top point earners Richardson, Sloanhoffer, Millick and Goldschrafe all return with new, re-worked routines. Richardson and Millick paced the team and ranked No. 9 and No. 17, respectively, in the southeast Region with 9.855 and 9.83 RQS.

Haley, Lawrence, Idell and junior Makenzie Bristol are all expected to fight for the last few open lineup spots.

“Floor is always the last event to come together during preseason, but the potential is there for us to have a really strong lineup,” said Butts. “We’ll probably start really simple, but Jaida and Dayah have really nice E passes, and we’re hoping to utilize those later in the season. The score potential on this event will build as the year goes on. Our main focus is to come out of the gate consistent and strong, hitting 10.0 routines and upgrading down the road.”