Nothing to Lose

  • By Shannon McNamara
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  • April 04, 2013 03:08 PM
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West Virginia University gymnastics coach Jason Butts took a deep breath, looked off into the distance and then broke down exactly what he told his student-athletes just five days ago.

“We focus on what we can control – we can only control our performances,” the second-year coach explained. “We are a team that has no pressure on our shoulders. We have nothing to prove this postseason, and that is best possible position for us to be in.”

Butts preaches pressure-free gymnastics daily inside Cary Gym. Not one to over-complicate simple tasks, he believes that clean gymnastics can score just as high as over-tricked routines.

The Mountaineers have dutifully bought into their coach’s philosophy and have reaped the rewards this season, as the squad has set a new standard for WVU gymnastics, having scored 196.0 or better in every meet at the Coliseum this year.

It wasn’t easy. The Mountaineers have had to overcome adversity each step of the way, as some gymnasts were held out of lineups early in the year as the cleaned up their routines, and others were pulled late in the year due to slight injuries. Additionally, the team had to navigate its way through a tough schedule which featured eight ranked opponents and trips to Utah, NC State and Iowa State for WVU’s first-ever Big 12 Championship.

Despite the challenges, the team continued its climb.

“I think if you look at the bright spots from each meet this year, you can start to see the puzzle pieces of this team come together,” said Butts. “This is a revitalized program that is growing and coming into its own. We’re all still getting on the same page, and that’s part of the growing process for any program with a new coach. We have to keep the focus on the long-term success of this team.”

Momentum for the 2013 season began last year, the first under Butts. The squad captured its league-best seventh East Atlantic Gymnastics League (EAGL) title and finished the season ranked No. 21 nationally with a 21-5 record, its first 20-win season since 2008. The campaign was capped by an astounding 195.9 showing at the NCAA Auburn Regional Championships, the team’s best-ever score at a regional.

On the surface, this year could be viewed as a potential step back for the Mountaineers. The squad boasts a 13-9 record and finished at 1-7 against ranked opponents; it went 5-4 against ranked teams in 2012. Gymnastics is a funny sport, though, and records don’t hold much weight at the end of the day. Instead, a team is judged by its scores and averages, and the Mountaineers’ point totals have been anything but ordinary this season.

WVU opened 2013 with its best-ever score in a road season opener, defeating Pitt, 194.675-193.55, at Fitzgerald Field House, in Pittsburgh, Pa., on Jan. 11. After a setback in Salt Lake City which saw the team earn 192.125 points in front of 14,917 fans, the Mountaineers produced their highest January road score in program history, earning 195.15 in a narrow loss at then-No. 24 NC State (195.2) on Jan. 25.

The team’s tear on the program record book kicked off in February when the Mountaineers opened their home and Big 12 seasons against No. 2-ranked Oklahoma on Feb. 1. The squad scored 196.05 in a second-place finish to the Sooners (197.375), Western Michigan (192.475) and William & Mary (192.225), in front of 1,881 fans. That night marked the quickest WVU had reached the 196.0+ point total since 2004.

From there, the results just improved, as the team tallied 196.15 in a win over Iowa State (194.825) at home on Feb. 10, the Mountaineers’ first Big 12 victory.

Following a 195.775 showing at Maryland on Feb 17 – the team’s best regular-season road score since scoring 197.4 at Pitt in 2004 – WVU returned to the Coliseum and narrowly fell to then No. 3-Michigan, 196.925-196.55, with its 10th-best score in program history and its highest point total of 2013.

Earned in the first-ever “Wendy M. Roach Invitational” Pink Meet, the Mountaineers hit 24-for-24, their only perfect meet of the season, and tallied 16 scores of 9.8 or better. Seniors Alaska Richardson and Kaylyn Millick capped the meet off with an exclamation point, earning respective career-best scores of 9.925 and 9.95 on floor.

The fact that the Mountaineers almost handed the then-one loss Wolverines their second defeat of the season reassures Butts, as his team faces UM again this weekend at the 2013 NCAA Morgantown Regional Championships, set for Saturday, April 6, at 6 p.m., at the WVU Coliseum.

“Sometimes, when the favored team makes a mistake, there is a panic that settles in over the squad,” Butts said. “We’ve seen that happen before. While we always hope for a good meet from every team, the Mountaineers need to capitalize on those mistakes if they happen.”

The No. 5-ranked Wolverines (23-2, 12-2 Big Ten), the region’s top-seeded team, typify the stiff competition the Mountaineers will see this weekend. No. 8-ranked Nebraska (16-3, 12-2 Big Ten), the 2013 Big Ten champions, are the region’s No. 2 seed, while No. 17 Illinois (13-10, 6-8 Big Ten) is seeded at No. 3. Kentucky (7-12-1, 4-10-1 SEC), ranked No. 19 nationally, earned the region’s No. 4 seed, and North Carolina (9-11, 7-9 EAGL), a former foe of WVU’s in the EAGL, is seeded sixth.

“I’m excited to see these teams in the Coliseum this weekend,” Butts said. “I just want to see WVU represented at this year’s NCAA Championships, and I think we have a great shot at that this year.”

Butts isn’t looking for a career-best routine from every gymnast on Saturday, though he knows the Mountaineers must hit 24-for-24 if they want to advance to the NCAA National Championships, set for April 19-21, at UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion, in Los Angeles. A bid would be the program’s fourth overall and first since 2000.

“WVU last advanced to the national championships out of a Morgantown Regional, and the team was the fifth seed that season, too. That fact has not been lost on this squad at all leading into this weekend’s competition,” he said. “This team is so confident in the WVU Coliseum. Can we catch Nebraska and Michigan if we hit 24-for-24? That’s going to be tough, but I do think we can come within a few tenths of catching them. I think that’s why those teams bear all the pressure on Saturday. If we compete like we have at home this season, then those teams need to make sure that they have zero mistakes. I think that’s part of the fun that surrounds this meet.”

Fun. It’s at the core of Butts’ beliefs and one of the biggest factors into his thinking that the Mountaineers will board a flight to California in two weeks if they get out on the floor, in front an appreciative WVU crowd, and compete like they have nothing to lose.

“The Mountaineers are a little like the Bad News Bears this weekend,” Butts thoughtfully said, referring his group of gymnasts to the iconic little leaguers made famous in the 1976 movie. “I think the team may feel like qualifying for nationals is a long shot, but they are so confident in the way that they have competed at the WVU Coliseum this season, that those nerves are being pushed away with excitement. Our seniors (Millick, Richardson and Chelsea Goldschrafe) are especially energized and ready to go. I think that that energy will trickle down throughout the rest of the team, and that bodes well for us.”

Pressure-free gymnastics. Butts cannot make his message any more simple.

“I keep reminding this team that we missed the national championships by tenths last year,” he emphatically concluded. “The focus doesn’t need to be on a trip to nationals. It needs to be on the constant march in the right direction and the legacy they are leaving for this program. The pride they need to have for all they have accomplished this year should be front-and-center this weekend.

“This team has a swag to it right now. They are confident, but they aren’t cocky. The seniors told me just this week that they hope we, the coaches, have a great meet this weekend, too. They reminded me that this staff has instilled a lot of confidence in this team this year, and they want to go out and make sure WVU is represented well in front of the home crowd. It’s exciting. Going in to last year’s regional, I was a ball of stress. This year – it’s there. The team is ready to go.”

Tickets still remain for Saturday’s competition and are $12 each when purchased in advance online at WVUGAME.com or by calling the Mountaineer Ticket Office at 1-800-WVU-GAME. Groups of 10 or more can receive a special group rate of $9 per person at WVUGAME.com or by calling 1-800-WVU-GAME. Group tickets must be purchased in advance. Tickets will be available at the door for $15 each on the meet day. WVU students get in for free with a valid WVU I.D.