The Last Hurrah
Jason Butts has a long-standing practice of publicly acknowledging the coaching lessons he learned under legendary West Virginia University gymnastics coach Linda Burdette-Good. One of the sport’s greatest pioneers, the 37-year leader understood that Butts would attempt to mold the Mountaineers around his philosophies, but she was adamant that he carry on at least one of her greatest beliefs.
“Linda truly believed that all her student-athletes should compete their best gymnastics as seniors, and I felt that was very important for me to carry on,” explained second-year coach Butts. “I want the seniors to be the de facto captains of the team and to lead by example. They need to capitalize on their strengths and to fight through adversity.”
The trio of gymnasts – Chelsea Goldschrafe, Kaylyn Millick and Alaska Richardson - the Mountaineers are set to honor tonight, at 7 p.m., at the WVU Coliseum, have fully embraced that belief. Though assistant coach Travis Doak classifies them as “gym rats,” Butts uses a slightly more graceful and much more endearing term – leaders.
“These girls have been amazing contributors over the last four years,” Butts said. “This is the first class that Travis recruited to come to WVU, and I think it speaks tremendously of him that they’re going out on such a high. Each of these gymnasts has put up huge scores for themselves and the team this year. It’s very commendable.”
All three have rallied behind the team’s common season theme of “climb higher.” Having witnessed the program go through the normal trials that proceed and accompany a coaching change, and then willing the Mountaineers to a new standard that stresses accountability and toughness each day, this group of seniors has helped WVU achieve levels of success not reached since at least 2004.
The Mountaineers enter their regular-season finale ranked No. 21 nationally and on the cusp of a top-18 ranking, a necessity in order to receive a top-three seed at the NCAA Morgantown Regional this April. Additionally, the team has hit the 196.0+ point benchmark four times this year, a feat only previously achieved by the 2004 squad. The Mountaineers will fight for their fifth straight 196.0+ mark at the Coliseum tonight – even the 2004 team can not lay claim to that achievement.
Yet, these senior leaders aren’t concerned with record-setting scores or win-loss marks. There is only one carrot they chase – one carrot that would be the perfect cap on an already memorable senior campaign.
A trip to the NCAA National Championships.
“Of the three WVU teams I have been a part of, this is the one I believe can take that next step and qualify for nationals,” said Millick, a 2011 transfer from Eastern Michigan. “We have goals that are setting us up well. Even if we get great scores in one meet, we strive to do better the next week, and I think that is what’s going to help push us over that hump. I couldn’t ask for a better situation than to host the regional championships this year. Everyone has witnessed how well we compete in the Coliseum, and we haven’t even put up a score that equals our potential.”
After making consecutive national championships appearances in 1999 and 2000, the Mountaineers have stalled at the NCAA Regional Championships.
Richardson agrees that this is the year the team makes the next move.
“Since my first day at WVU, I’ve always been told that the Mountaineers are talented,” the multi-disciplinary studies major explained. “I think our focus wasn’t right in the past. Now, we just get in the gym and compete, and we don’t worry about the scores. If we just do our gymnastics, the hard work will pay off. Those 196.0+ scores are proof we’re doing the right thing. There has always been a hope that we would qualify for nationals, but then usually the regional comes and goes, and we’re left out and looking forward to the next season.
“I thought we could qualify last year. We didn’t, but we scored our best-ever regional mark (195.9), and that was a big ego boost moving into this season. This year, if we keep competing the way we are, everything will just fall into place. I really feel like we have a good chance of qualifying.”
One big step toward achieving their goal would be to earn a solid score tonight. The trio, anxious about leaving their competition days behind them, can breathe easier knowing that they still have the regional championships at the Coliseum on April 6 ahead of them.
“This program has grown so much over the last four years,” Goldschrafe, a business administration and marketing major, enthused. “The meet against Oklahoma (a crowd of 1,881 was in attendance on Feb. 1) really proved to me how much our fan base has grown. That shows me that all the hard work we’ve put in over the last four years has not only been beneficial to us as gymnasts, but also for this program. We can bring a crowd to the Coliseum.
“The energy the fans provide us at home is incredible – you can’t stop smiling the whole meet. I love singing ‘Country Roads’ at the end of the meet, but the time I spend with my teammates before the meet is my favorite moment. We always do cheers and say prayers in our tunnel, and each time I get chills. The seniors always lead that moment, and I’m looking forward to that these last two meets at the Coliseum.”
Millick also is thankful that tonight will not be the final time she joins her teammates on the Coliseum floor. While the Washington, Pa., native’s scores this season, which include career highs on each event, have proven her competition leadership skills, it is the moments she spends mentoring her teammates, especially sophomores Beth Deal, Dayah Haley and Lia Salzano, that she cherishes most.
“I love that role,” the exercise physiology major said with a smile. “Beth and I have a little ritual that we do before beam, and I like that she comes to me and trusts that she will do well if I’m there. Dayah will get really focused in meets, to the point that sometimes she forgets what to do because she’s so focused. She does better if she is reminded to nail her routine; I remind her that she has what it takes.
“I’m glad I’m doing so well, and I’m glad I’m noticing why. I’m trying to leave the lessons I’m learning with my teammates. Those three sophomores are amazing gymnasts. They’re young, and sometimes they just need someone to remind them of their capabilities. I’m glad I can do that for them.”
Richardson, a native of Dayton, Ohio, is OK with Millick providing the in-meet mentorship for the undergrads, as she consumes herself with bringing the “crazy.”
“We take pride in being the loudest team in the gym,” she said. “When Jason tells us to be crazy, I make sure we do what he says. He knows we’re going to be crazy anyway. We need to stay crazy, stay positive and do Mountaineer gymnastics, and he reminds us of that every day. As seniors, we’ve gone out of our way to make sure the team stays focused in competition, and I just make sure we have fun, too.
“I’m hoping this team continues to have fun after we’re gone. I hope everyone continues to respect her teammates, and I hope they all remain accountable. That’s a really strong word in the gym, and it’s helped our team succeed. Our days as seniors are numbered. We want to make sure we’re a good example for this team, just like (2012 seniors) Nicole (Roach) and Tina (Maloney) were for us.”
Franklin Lakes, N.J., native Goldschrafe believes her fight against setbacks is the best lesson she can leave her teammates. Sidelined by a broken back and mono when she entered WVU, she has fought to not only maintain a spot on the floor lineup each season, but to also compete in each of the other three events. She now sees time on vault and bars, too.
“I’ve tried to make myself in to the type of leader that I would want to follow,” Goldschrafe explained. “The unique thing about this senior class is that we’ve all become different leaders, and I think that’s really helped us. I’ve always fought, and I’ve tried to prove my worth each season. So many schools told me during the recruiting process that I would never vault in college. To be able to step-up for the Mountaineers in any lineup, whenever they needed me, was all about fighting and proving those coaches wrong. High scores are important, but knowing that I can go in and hit a routine whenever my team needs me to is most important to me.”
Yes, these seniors are leading and competing their best gymnastics this year. Since hitting for a career-best 39.4 on Feb. 1, Millick has scored below 39.0 only once. She’s been rock solid on floor and scored a career-high 9.95 in front of the Coliseum crowd on Feb. 24. Richardson has tallied a career-high 9.925 on vault and floor, and Goldschrafe has matched her top floor mark of 9.85.
“Some gymnasts get scared of their senior season; no one wants to end her career on a bad note,” Millick said. “I’m trying to attack this season; I don’t want to be afraid that it’s ending. I know what works and what doesn’t. I focus on what works in practice, and I try to take that into the meets. I think that’s helped me do so well this year.
“My 9.95 floor score was like a breath of fresh air, and it was cool that I accomplished that small goal. When I re-watch that routine, and I hear the Coliseum crowd cheering – that’s the coolest part of that achievement. I heard the crowd’s roar with each pass I landed, and I remember seeing my family with the biggest smiles on their faces. They looked so proud, and that was the best feeling. To go through this season with Alaska and Chelsea has been so great. I’m going to remember that bond more than any score or trophy.”
Butts has one simple explanation for the gymnastics he’s seeing from this beloved trio.
“This class is proving its dedication to Mountaineer gymnastics through its actions,” he concluded. “That’s the kind of person I am, too. You can say whatever you want to say verbally, but proving your commitment through your actions, every single day, is the new standard these seniors have set for their teammates. In four years, they have never once disappointed me with their work ethic. They just go, and go and go. They did that as freshmen, and they’re going 10 times harder as seniors. They love being in a gym, and they have never lost their love for the sport. Life without gymnastics for these three is going to be a tough adjustment, but just like they’ve attacked their work in the gym, I know they’ll be fine.”
The Mountaineers will send-off the threesome this evening following their regular-season finale against Maryland and Rutgers. It’s a “Dollar Night,” with all tickets, hot dogs, popcorn and Coca-Colas available for purchase for just $1. Additionally, 500 free finger lights will be distributed to kids. Fans also can save $3 by purchasing tickets for the NCAA Morgantown Regional in advance at the gate Friday night.
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