May 5, 2016
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Sometimes, a head coach struggles when summarizing a team’s year.
And sometimes, he doesn’t.
“We were nothing if not consistent this season,” West Virginia University gymnastics head coach Jason Butts said through a laugh. “We had a throwaway meet at Denver to open the year, but after that we hit that 195.0 mark, and there was no turning back.”
The Mountaineers opened the 2016 season with a rough 193.65 showing at No. 16 Denver on Jan. 9 and closed the year with a slightly disappointing 194.25 performance at the NCAA Tuscaloosa Regional Championships on April 2.
Sandwiched between those meets was a string of 11 contests in which the Mountaineers scored 195.0 better, marking the first time since 2004, and only the second time in program history, the squad scored 195.0+ in all but one of its regular-season meets.
Butts recently sat down with associate head coach Travis Doak and assistant coach Kaylyn Millick to review and access the Mountaineers’ 2016 season.
This team scored 195.0 or better in all but two meets this season. Would you say the 2016 team was one of your most consistent squads in recent history?
Head Coach Jason Butts: Yes. If we want to qualify for the NCAA National Championships and NCAA Super Six in the coming years, then that consistency has to be there. In the past, I’ve seen teams just have up-and-down seasons, so to stay in the 195.0 – 196.0 range for 11 weeks was wonderful.
Associate Head Coach Travis Doak: There was an upgrade in difficulty this year, and I was happy to see us improve our consistency while also competing more difficult skills. I left this season recognizing that change and wanting more.
In the past, we would want to maintain this level into the next year, but now I want more. We are a young team and we won’t lose many routines. The 2016 season was the first step, and it was a step in the right direction.
Assistant Coach Kaylyn Millick: This year was exciting because we’ve worked on our consistency during practice over the last few seasons, so to see that carry over into the meet season this year was great because we were able to witness the team’s hard work.
JB: I think that’s why our performance at the Tuscaloosa Regional was so disappointing because we were competing the hardest gymnastics we had ever done. There were bobbles on beam and a few disappointing moments, but I think our gymnastics for the most part was there.
You had two themes this year: Legacy and Road Warriors. How did those themes fuel the team’s motivation throughout the season?
JB: I was really proud of this year’s team. We put together such a difficult road schedule, and everyone fought through it, including the staff. I think we could see some fatigue in April because of all the travel, but they continued to use their fight as motivation. It was good for this team to get back-to-back 195.0s on the road, like it did during our Iowa State – Oklahoma swing in February (195.2 at ISU and 195.25 at No. 2 OU).
The team returned to the national rankings this season and spent six weeks within the Road to Nationals Top 25. What type of impact does a steady national ranking have on the program and on the gymnasts?
JB: A national ranking is a huge confidence boost. We always say we want to be a seeded team at the NCAA Regional Championships; well, you can’t do that if you are not ranked in the top 25. It’s a bit more realistic when you’re sitting at No. 21 or No. 22 near the end of the regular season, which we were this year.
I wish we were ranked within the top 25 at the end of the year (the Mountaineers finished the season ranked No. 31). I’m not happy about that position, and I know the team isn’t either.
You will return 12 gymnasts in 2017 – how will you use the showing in Tuscaloosa as a motivator this offseason?
TD: We need to create very clear expectations for each gymnasts so when they return to campus in the fall they know where they need to start. I think they all realize now their own talent level, and we need to ensure that when they return they are firing on all cylinders. We don’t want to rebuild in September – we want to hit the ground running. I want to create a very clear direction for this team for next year.
JB: Every gymnast earned some sort of experience this season, so they all can say they’ve been there before. Now, they’re all working on upgrades, and that’s different from years’ past. We have a team full of ‘gym rats’ – they just want to be in the gym and train. I think they all know how talented our incoming class is, and that knowledge is motivating them to improve.
In hindsight, I think it’s good we didn’t get the result we desired in Alabama because now they’re all hungry.
How would you access the leadership and impact this year’s senior class had on the team, and how do you replace their void in 2017?
JB: I think all three student-athletes made an effort to work together as a unit this year. For next year, we have a great opportunity to empower the whole team; we want everyone to be a leader.
KM: It was fun to watch those three senior gymnasts this year because they are all so different. Those differences allowed each of them to help their teammates in different ways. Their differences helped the team as a whole, and that was fun.
JB: We had a lot of adversity this year, especially at the beginning of the season, but everyone was focused on business inside Cary Gym, and that was nice.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, you received a lot of production out of your freshman class this season. Were you happy to see them step up right away?
TD: I think this class needed us as a staff to push them to find their roles this season. I hope they can improve that next year – I want to see more fight from them all. I think they each did a good job, and they competed well when the opportunities presented themselves, but I know we can get more from them as sophomores in 2017. We need to maximize their potential.
JB: Kirah and I have already had a few talks about expectations and continuing to develop as a sophomore. I don’t think she set herself too high this year – in fact, I think she can push to compete all-around next season. Kirah has already taken advantage of our open gym sessions, and she’s already trying to get better.
I think she can continue to get better. She had an excellent floor routine this season, but we’re asking ourselves, ‘Why wasn’t this a 9.9 each meet?’ I think there are adjustments to be made there. I also think she can make improvements on balance beam.
I really believe Kirah can earn an all-around spot, and I would love to see her earn an All-America honor in a postseason competition, too.
JB: It’s been an amazing privilege to watch this group of student-athletes grow and develop. They each could go out and compete today if we had a competition.
(Team MVP) Zaakira is leaps and bounds ahead of where she was in 2015; her growth is phenomenal and she is in the best shape of anyone on the team.
I think all four of the sophomores are so much more mature than they were as freshmen. They’re going to be the leadership of the team in 2017.
KM: Every gymnast is hard on herself, but Lex puts immense pressure on herself every day. She was able to get a better handle on that this year, and it was great to see that growth. Alexa has really matured a lot, and we see her reach out daily to help her teammates. In that way, she’s really helping the team.
How would you access the 2016 season overall?
TD: While I was happy with our consistency, I know we can compete better. We want more. There is so much potential and ability returning to Cary Gym next season. The expectation is to continue to grow. We are close to breaking through, but I want more. I want more from the gymnasts, and I want more from myself.
JB: We have the perfect storm brewing in Cary Gym right now. We have an incredible freshman class coming in this fall and a tremendous group of returners. We will host the NCAA Morgantown Regional Championships in 2017, and we need to take advantage of that opportunity. We also have an easier road schedule next year. I think we need to set the expectations high and come out of the gates strong.
KM: The gymnasts did their jobs when we put them in their place this season, but I want to see more hunger from them. The coaching staff is hungry, that’s for sure.
TD: The future is looking bright. I’m glad everyone feels good about the 2016 season, but we have the talent to push forward, and that excites me.