Throughout the 2018 season, one phrase kept popping up around the West Virginia gymnastics program. “Climbing the mountain” had become the mantra of the team.
“We use a lot of imagery since we are the Mountaineers and live in the Mountain State, just climbing the mountain, and you know how hard it is to actually climb up a mountain and every now and then you do go backward a little bit when you’re trying to scale a mountain,” head coach Jason Butts said. “But it’s just basically making the goal to reach the apex of it or the top of the mountain and just focusing on that as you go through the whole season and not letting little setbacks discourage you. You just keep climbing, no matter what.”
Butts took over the WVU program in 2011. Since then, the Mountaineers have racked up a 78-52-1 record. He has led WVU to five appearances at the NCAA Regional Championships and a program-best, second-place showing at the 2015 Big 12 Gymnastics Championship.
Last season, however, West Virginia was unable to put it together. The team posted a 13-13 overall record and went 0-6 in the Big 12. With a score of 194.4, WVU placed sixth at the University Park Regional Championships to finish the 2018 season.
“We didn’t end on the note that I wanted last year,” Butts said, “but we did build a lot last year on consistency. We didn’t end up counting a fall until we got to regionals, which was the absolute worst time to count one. But the team was very consistent, not only their work ethic, but in competition, and we’re hoping that’s something we can carry over into 2019, that same consistency and be able to stick with it the whole way through.”
In order to bounce back from its regional performance, Butts will be looking to his seniors to help guide the team. They include Carly Galpin, Kirah Koshinski and Jaquie Tun.
“They’re very different people, very different personalities, but they all bring something crucial to the table,” Butts said. “They’re all very hardworking. Right now, Carlee is going to be probably our star beam standout kid. She’s been doing that for four years now. She’s excellent, very consistent. And then Jackie and Keira both are looking at all-around spots and all three of them are capable of putting up multiple 98.5 plus scores.”
Butts likes his group of freshmen as well. Rachel Hornung, Esperanza Abarca, Kendra Combs, Kristen Lang and Taylor Sell will all be expected to contribute to this season’s success.
“Once again, they all kind of bring different things to the table. I would say overall they are a very graceful class of gymnasts on floor and beam, but then they’re also excellent on bars,” Butts said. “A couple of good vaulters. We do have one coming back from an injury in Kendra Combs, but she is looking amazing. Her strongest event is bars, and we’re hoping that we can have her in by the time we get to Cancun. They’re really just a really diverse class of gymnasts in what they can bring. They’re hardworking and honestly, it seems like they’ve been here a couple of years already. They’re already picking up on the system and what they need to do to be able to contribute.”
With talent in the upperclassmen ranks and the freshmen class, Butts wants to put a balanced lineup on the floor each night out, but he really likes what the Mountaineers have been doing on the beam.
“I’d say probably our most consistent event and probably the greatest scoring potential right off the bat is going to be balance beam,” he said. “They are hitting routines like crazy on that event and the artistry is great. Very different routines going in, different kinds of flights and skills and dismounts.”
West Virginia will jump into action Jan. 4 when the team heads to Mexico to compete in the Cancun Classic along with Rutgers, Michigan and Iowa State.
“For me, it’s kind of a two-prong thing with this trip,” Butts said. “It’s a reward for them to go somewhere warm and open up the start of the year with a trip that’s just really exciting, but then at the same time, it’s good to put them through some adversity. Being on the road is hard. To be able to start off with what is a hard road trip, to have it be to the place like going to Cancun and competing against three other great teams will be a good challenge for them to start off the season and set us up. We have a lot of great meets this year and so it’s going to be good for them to get some experience right off the bat.”
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