Jan. 12, 2012
LOGAN, Utah -
By Megan Allen / USU Athletic Media Relations
Heading into the 2012 season, the Utah State gymnastics team is gearing up for what they hope to be a successful year. According to fourth-year head coach Jeff Richards, the overall morale, drive and dedication is up, leading to better chemistry among members of the team, which in turn leads to a better team.
"This year the atmosphere is completely different than in the past," Richards said. "We've had a lot of optimism, and everybody feels like we're going to do well."
USU, which is entering its seventh season in the Western Athletic Conference, will only be one of five teams in the conference in 2012, as Boise State departed for the Mountain West and Cal State Fullerton discontinued gymnastics. The WAC replaced those two teams with Denver, who is joining the league in all sports for the 2012-13 season, but got permission to enter the conference in gymnastics a year early. The Aggies will still face former WAC foe Boise State in a home-and-home series. Utah State will also be the host institution for the 2012 WAC Championships on March 24.
"Hosting the conference meet is exciting for our program, our University and our community," Richards said. "This year will be a little bit different without Boise State and Cal State Fullerton, but at the same time it is really, really nice to be able to host it and be in front of our home crowd. If you look back at our scores historically, we tend to do better at home, which is a good thing to be in front of your home crowd. It is a good, comfortable setting and a nice place to compete for the conference championship."
Heading into the season, there is a fluid mix of veterans and newcomers. For the second-straight season, there are two members of the senior class, along with two juniors and five sophomores.
Seniors Rebecca Holliday (Orange, Calif.) and Haley Hogan (Centerville, Utah) will provide veteran leadership and experience in the final season. Juniors Amelia Montoya (Mission Viejo, Calif. ) and Amanda Watamaniuk (Centerville, Ohio) are returning to form after injury-shortened seasons a year ago. The Aggies' returning NCAA Regional participants are both sophomores in Hugo, Minn., native Rachel Vaske who competed in the all-around at the regional meet and Smithville, Mo., native Paige Jones who competed on both vault and floor. Fellow sophomores Brittney Mackins (Allentown, Pa.) and Christina Nye (North Logan, Utah) along with redshirt-freshman Samantha Wagner (Batavia, Ill.) give USU talent and depth.
There are seven young freshmen Aggies who are ready to go. They were heavily recruited and will be bringing a lot to the team, Richards said.
Leading the newcomers will be Kaitlyn Betts, from Canton, Mich., was the Junior Olympic vault champion for her age group last season. She has had some pre-season injuries, including a bruised foot and torn calf muscle, that have kept her from practicing to her full potential. However, Richards expects that upon full recovery, she will be a leader among the vaulters. Sarah Landes (Edmond, Okla.) is another freshman he hopes to see as a team leader. She is expected to participate in meets as an all-around competitor.
"She's one of our `watch list' type of kids," Richards said. "Her bars are a work in progress, but for the most part she'll probably be one of our strongest all-arounders."
Right now, the biggest focus of the team is getting each individual competing at the highest level they can.
"We have kids who are learning new skills, putting new skills into their routines, and getting skills back they may have lost," Richards said. "There's just a lot of really great stuff happening in the gym. It would be great to see it all put together. With the coaching staff and the kids we have, we're in a very positive environment right now. It may not show right away, but I really think we have the team to put it together. We'll see when they get out on the floor."
The coaching staff has seen some changes in the off-season that Richards said will be very beneficial to the team. TeShawne Jackson has been hired as an assistant coach, joining Janet Anson in the role. The two coached together at Iowa State and have said they are excited to be working together again.
With the new hire, roles of the coaching staff was changed around a bit. Anson has moved to coaching specifically the vault and floor events, while Jackson will be coaching the balance beam. Richards has moved back to coaching girls on the bars, which he said is his favorite event to coach.
"We all coach every event though and when we see things, we'll say something, but these are our main priorities," Richards said.
Luckily, the entire coaching staff is on the same page and has similar goals that they are working together to achieve.
"We all see the same thing and are working toward the kids fighting and not giving up. We're all expecting a lot of each other to keep the girls going and keep them focused on their goals and to keep a positive attitude in the gym," Richards said. "We're on the same track. We all have the same focus, and we're moving in a good direction."
In his fourth year of coaching, this season is, in a way, Richards' "senior year." As he has gone through each season, he has learned something each season that makes him a better coach and aims to continue that improvement.
"I thought after year two we had it down, but year three was just crazy. I can't even put my finger on what happened, but the team chemistry was just not there. Our level of kids was the highest we'd had since I'd been here, but for some reason the chemistry just didn't work," he said. "I feel like this year the level is definitely higher than even last year. I feel like we're finally going to put it together. We have the optimism; we have the kids who are ready to work hard and make it all work, who are very team-oriented. We're on track to have some great things happen. It may be a little rough out of the blocks, but I think we can do well this year."
Changing the atmosphere and quality of the team started with recruiting. Anson was the leader behind that and Richards said he thinks she did a good job of finding gymnasts who are not just good athletes, but also mesh well with the program and the girls who were already here.
"The recruiting was big. We had to bring in kids who were as good as or better than the girls we lost, and I feel like we've done that," he said.
With high recruiting comes high numbers of new gymnasts, which can sometimes be a challenge. Getting seven new girls to integrate and work well with an established group can be difficult, but overall, Richards said they have jumped right in and are already clicking nicely with the other girls.
One thing that helped was implementing a new "big sister" program. Each upperclassman was paired win an underclassman to help out, be friends with and mentor.
"It's worked out really well, I think. They've taken it on really well," Richards said. "The upperclassmen are enjoying it and the freshmen have really taken to it. They're doing a great job, they're listening. It's just a really good bunch of kids."
EVENT BREAK DOWN: During the pre-season, the coaching staff has been trying to establish leaders and stand-outs on the team, and trying to decide who will compete in which events. For some, it's clear who will have the most success, while other events are yet to see a leader emerge.
Vault: Betts and Landes, along with returning sophomore Paige Jones, are expected to lead the way on vault. Richards said senior Rebecca Holliday and junior Amelia Montoya are working to upgrade their individual vaults, bringing the team score up.
Bars: Jones and Holliday are the stand-outs on the bars at this point. Joining them is junior Amanda Watamaniuk, who was out with injuries for the majority of the 2011 season.
"Amanda's really coming along after being injured and out last year," Richards said. "She's going to be one of those that people see and say "Hey, who's that kid and where did she come from?"
Beam: In the past, the beam has offered the most challenges for the Aggies, but Richards said the event is getting better.
"Last year we looked pretty good in practice but couldn't quite put it together in meets. Then the times we would get it together for meets, we'd mess up on other events," Richards said. "I really think this year will be different."
While a clear leader has not stepped up yet, Richards said he thinks the team will feed off each other in the next couple of weeks and grow from there.
Floor: At this point, Landes and Jones are expected to shine on the floor. That is one of the team's weak areas, as those who have led the way in the past are the ones with injuries and unable to compete.
2012 UTAH STATE SCHEDULE The USU gymnastics team is hoping to use the solid mix of veterans and newcomers to continue the building that the program has done and take the next step of qualifying to regionals as a team. The Aggies have a continually tough schedule, featuring several ranked teams. USU opens the regular season against the University of Utah, who is ranked No. 5 in the preseason rankings. Utah is one of five preseason ranked teams on USU's 2012 schedule, while four others are among others receiving votes.
"We're just trying to remind them that it's not a big deal. We'll just go in and do our thing and be prepared, then we can have the meet we want to have," Richards said.
When it comes to gymnastics, there isn't a lot that can be done in the ways of preparing to go against another team. There are no defensive strategies to plan or films to watch.
"You just have to do your lineup, score the best you can, play your own game and do your own gymnastics," Richards said. "If you've done your job and pointed your toes and been as clean as you possibly can be, it could be a good night."
Nearly half of the Aggies' 11 meets are in the friendly home confines of the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum, hosting five meets during the regular season.
USU's farthest road trip will be to Denton, Texas for a tri-meet hosted by Texas Woman's, along with NCAA Super Six finalist Oklahoma, who is ranked No. 4 in the preseason rankings.
In all, USU will face three teams that finished in the top 25 of last season's final Troester/Women's Gymnastics National Poll, No. 3 Oklahoma, No. 5 Utah and No. 13 Boise State, which are three of the eight teams that qualified for the Regional Championships.
"I feel like we have a good schedule for the 2012 season," Richards said. "I like the fact that we are at Utah. It's always a fun meet there and exciting to compete in front of a big crowd, that gets you ready for the atmosphere of a conference and regional meet would be."
Utah State has a total of three back-to-back road meets, with the first coming on Friday, Jan. 13 at Salt Lake City against Utah and then on Saturday, Jan. 21, traveling to Denton, Texas for the Texas Woman's tri-meet with Oklahoma.
The road trip to Texas is USU's longest of the season, and only one of three road trips out of the state of Utah as well as the only one in a different time zone.
"Having short road trips will be nice for our young team, not like having to travel out east like a couple years ago, across all the different time zones. I think it keeps them in a same routine. The more of a routine you can keep a young team; the better off they'll be and the better they'll compete," Richards said.
The Aggies then return home for a four-meet homestand, opening on Friday, Jan. 27 against Southern Utah in USU's WAC opener, which will also feature former WAC foe Boise State. Southern Utah is among others receiving votes, while Boise State is ranked No. 14 in the preseason rankings. Utah State then hosts Arizona State on Friday, Feb. 3, in the first of two meets against an Arizona foe, and the first meeting between the Aggies and Sun Devils since 2004. It is also ASU's first visit to Logan since 2002.
After hosting San Jose State on Friday, Feb. 10 in a WAC dual, USU will wrap up its four-meet homestand against Sacramento State on Friday, Feb. 17 in another conference meet.
"Hopefully having a four-meet stretch at home this year will provide different results than our four-meet stretch on the road last year. We faultered a little bit on the road for so long, so hopefully having a stretch of four meets in a row at home and in front of our home crowd will help our team settle down and feel comfortable and gain some more confidence," Richards said.
USU will head to Provo, Utah on Saturday, Feb. 25 for a tri-meet hosted by BYU with Southern Utah. Utah State will then open the month of March by heading to Boise, Idaho to tangle with Boise State on Friday, March 2.
The Aggies' regular-season home finale is against the Cougars of BYU on Monday, March 5. That is the only Friday-Monday meet pairing of the season.
USU concludes regular-season action with a pair of road meets, first at Cedar City, Utah against Southern Utah on Friday, March 9 and then at Tucson, Ariz. in a quad meet at Arizona with Air Force and Bridgeport.
"One of our other big meets of the season is a quad meet at Arizona, that should be another good meet for us. It will be a great preparation for us for the conference meet with multiple teams and a big crowd," Richards said.
Utah State is the host institution for the 2012 WAC Championships on Saturday, March 24. It will be the first time since 2006, USU's first year in the conference, that the Aggies will host the WAC Championships. Overall, it will be the seventh time that Utah State has hosted its conference meet. USU previously hosted the WAC Championships in 2006, the Western Gymnastics Conference Championships in 2002, the Big West Conference Championships in 1992, 1996 and 2000, as well as the High Country Athletic Conference Championships in 1988.
If it qualifies, Utah State will compete in the NCAA North Central Regional Championships, hosted by Utah at Salt Lake City on Saturday, April 7. The 2012 NCAA National Championships are Friday-Sunday, April 20-22, at Duluth, Ga.
For USU gymnastics ticket information, contact the USU Ticket Office at the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum, by phone by calling 1-888-USTATE-1 or (435) 797-0305, or online 24 hours a day at www.UtahStateAggies.com and clicking on the "buy/renew tickets" under the "tickets" drop down menu.
Fans can follow the Aggie gymnastics program at twitter.com/USUGymnastics or on Facebook at UtahStategymnastics Aggies. Aggie fans can also follow the Utah State athletic program at twitter.com/USUAthletics or on Facebook at Utah State University Athletics.
2012 WAC GYMNASTICS PRESEASON COACHES POLL Rank Teams (1st Place Votes) Points 1. Denver (3) 15 2. Southern Utah (2) 13 T3. San Jose State 9 T3. UTAH STATE 9 5. Sacramento State 4
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