Big 12 Series: Gymnastics spring with conference realignment changes

Isaac Hunt

Through conference realignment, addition and subtraction keep Big 12 gymnastics balanced.

Iowa State and Oklahoma remain as Big 12 veterans, Missouri is out, West Virginia is in and Texas Christian University could vault its way into the mix.

“[The Big 12] is in a weird place right now,” said ISU coach Jay Ronayne. “We’re sitting back, and we have to just watch and see what develops.”

When the dust settles, the Big 12 could see some major changes and added success.

So long, Missouri

Missouri athletics is en route to the Southeastern Conference, home of six of the current top 15 gymnastic schools in the country. Only four teams have ever won an NCAA Championship in gymnastics and two of them reside in the SEC.

Tigers’ coach Rob Drass said he will miss the Big 12, but he is also looking forward to new challenges in the SEC.

“We love the Big 12,” Drass said. “It’s a great gymnastics conference. I wish the people that remain and [West Virginia] continued success. West Virginia is a great addition.”

The rivalry between Iowa State and Missouri will be on hold for next season, Ronayne said.

“We want to keep [Missouri] on our schedule, and they want to keep us,” Ronayne said. “We will lose them next year, but see them the year after.”

Drass said the new conference will be challenging, but that excites him. He is also leaving behind fond memories and strong relationships in the Big 12.

“It wasn’t my idea to leave the Big 12,” Drass said. “We always loved competing against Iowa State, Oklahoma, Nebraska. It’s a little bittersweet. We’re ready to start the challenge of a new conference, but at the same time we have good friends [here].”

Welcome, West Virginia

Missouri left; the Big 12 gymnastics was down to two teams. When West Virginia was added, the Big 12 Championship meet was salvaged.

“I think our biggest concern was to be able to continue having a conference meet,” said ISU junior Elizabeth Stranahan. “We’ve been lucky, we’re losing Missouri, but we’re adding West Virginia.”

Since 1996, WVU gymnastics has been a part of the Eastern Atlantic Gymnastics League (EAGL). This caused a lack of enthusiasm on campus for conference titles since the school’s other teams competed in the Big East.

“It allows our athletes and our coaches to say that we’re competing for the same conference title that all of the other teams are competing for on campus here,” said WVU coach Jason Butts. “It’s exciting. In the past we’ve been a part of the [EAGL], which was kind of obscure on campus here.”

After holding the reins as coach for less than a year, Butts heard the news that West Virginia was moving to the Big 12.

“I was excited,” Butts said. “I’ve always had a lot of respect for the head coaches at Oklahoma and Iowa State. They didn’t ask us where we wanted to be — it all comes down to numbers and money — but I was very excited to join the Big 12.”

For his second year as WVU coach, Butts is confident his team can be competitive in the conference title meet.

“I think that we can come in and definitely challenge,” Butts said. “Oklahoma is a perennial gymnastics power, so we’re going to have to step up our game there, but I think we can come in and be competitive. That’s our goal: to keep the quality of the Big 12 Conference where it is right now, and we want to be a part of making it even better.”

Ronayne returns to humble beginnings

Some Big 12 coaches have history at rival schools.

Former coach K.J. Kindler left for Oklahoma after six years as ISU coach, a 58-27-1 overall record and one conference championship at Iowa State. She coached that team to its second — and most recent — Big 12 title in 2006.

After Kindler packed her bags for Norman, Okla., Ronayne stepped in at Iowa State after four seasons as an assistant at Auburn.

Before that, Ronayne spent 13 years at West Virginia.

“I essentially grew up at West Virginia coaching,” Ronayne said. “As soon as I graduated from UMass, I was recruited to coach at West Virginia, and I was there for 13 years. My formative coaching years happened there.

“My wife is an [alumna], I have family there, and it’s a very special place to us. To have them involved in the Big 12 is exciting.”

It may be his old home, but Ronayne has a bigger reason to be excited about seeing the new Big 12 school.

“They’re a high-quality program,” Ronayne said. “It’d be different if they weren’t good, but we have a great gymnastics team coming into our conference.”

The possibility of TCU gymnastics

Mark Cohen, TCU assistant athletics director for media relations, said his school is examining the possibility of adding one or two women’s sports and there is a possibility of gymnastics could be one of them.

Cohen said there is no timetable for a decision to be made, but the possibilities excite Ronayne.

“If that happens, we’re back at four [teams],” Ronayne said. “I’m hoping TCU will do that; it’d be a great thing for us. They could build a strong team very fast. Texas is the hotbed for club gymnastics. Everybody that has a gymnastics team recruits out of there.

The addition of gymnastics at TCU could create more possibilities for the sport in the Big 12.

“TCU [would] be the only Division I collegiate gymnastics team in Texas,” Ronayne said. “They could get all the kids and be contenders for the national championship really fast if they do it right. And if I were a betting man, I would bet other Texas schools would jump on that immediately.”

It’s anybody’s guess right now, but the departure of Nebraska in 2011 cut Big 12 gymnastics by 25 percent so the addition of a team would bring that back.

All of the speculation does not faze those on the team who are focused and determined. Some athletes do not care where they are in the conference, they just want to compete.

“Really I’m just trying to focus on Iowa State,” said freshman Caitlin Brown. “What team’s here and what team’s somewhere else, I can’t let it affect what we do best.”