Iowa State gymnastics embracing daunting task against Oklahoma

Members of the Iowa State gymnastics team compete during the first home meet of the season against Arizona Jan. 12 in Hilton Coliseum. The Cyclones defeated the Wildcats 195.45 to 194.975.

Austin Anderson

Iowa State gymnastics coach Jay Ronayne sent a text Wednesday to Oklahoma coach K.J. Kindler, four days before their teams were set to square off in a tri-meet.

“Congratulations on a good start to the season,” Ronayne wrote. “It would be OK with me if you took the weekend off.”

Oklahoma taking the weekend off might be the Cyclones best chance to beat the Sooners. Oklahoma is the two-time defending national champion and has the highest score of any team so far this season, a 197.550 in a victory over Georgia on Monday.

If the Cyclones are able to make noise Sunday in Norman, Oklahoma, it would be a first for Ronayne. In his 12 years as head coach, he has never beaten Oklahoma.

It started in 2007 when Kindler, then the Iowa State gymnastics coach, left the Cyclones after leading them to a third place finish at the national championships to take the head coaching position at Oklahoma. Ronayne stepped in after being an assistant at Auburn and had his best shot to take down the Sooners at the 2007 regionals.

With a trip to the 2007 national championships on the line, Iowa State and Oklahoma finished with the exact same score of 195.975. The tiebreaker extended the score to include the sixth gymnast in each event whose score is normally not counted. The Cyclones lost by tenths of a point.

“I don’t think I’ll ever forget the feelings [after that],” Ronayne said, laughing now 11 years later. “I was angry. We didn’t perform as well as we could have that day.

“For it to be a tie with Oklahoma, that was the irony of the century. I remember saying at the time if I had written a script of a movie that ended this way, nobody would’ve believed it.”

In Ronayne’s early years as coach, he struggled following in his predecessor’s footsteps. He had to prove himself as a coach to a team that just had one of the most successful coaches in school history. It was no fault of his own, he just wasn’t Kindler.

“The team didn’t want her to leave,” Ronayne said. “So when she left, they didn’t want anybody else. It was a huge struggle.”

It took time and cycles of recruiting classes, but Ronayne undoubtedly is the man in charge of leading this team back to the top of college gymnastics. After upsets of three top-20 teams in just two meets this season, the Cyclones are back in the top 15.

This meet is against Oklahoma, but gymnastics is different than any other sport. Wins and losses matter to a certain extent, but not nearly as much as the team score. The average team score at the end of the season is what qualifies teams for the postseason.

“In our sport, it’s not like you have to win a certain amount of games to get into a bowl game,” said senior captain Kelsey Paz. “It’s about getting a certain score. For us, it’s actually really refreshing to go to the national champions because it pushes us a little bit more and our scores usually show that.”

Some teams might ignore the fact that they’re competing against the best team in the country. The Cyclones might have ignored it last year. This year, while Ronayne said they haven’t really spoken out loud about it, the team seems to be embracing the challenge.

“I think when you go against Oklahoma, it’s almost less stressful, which is weird because they’re one of the best teams in the country,” said senior captain Briana Ledesma. “To us, it’s not that we can’t beat them. It’s just that we know, in our sport, that’s just not the outcome that’s going to happen, unless there is an odd miracle and they fall 47 times.”

With the slim chance of the Cyclones pulling the upset, they said they feel like they’re going down to Norman, Oklahoma, with nothing to lose.

“We don’t have to go in the mindset that we have to beat them,” Ledesma said. “We just go in there like ‘let’s rock a solid meet.’ When we have that mindset, we usually shake people up a bit. That’s what happened [last season] with Alabama.”

Last season, Iowa State went on the road to finish the season at No. 6 Alabama. The Cyclones held the lead over one of the best teams in the country through three events but weren’t ultimately able to hang on. In front of a crowd of over 10,000 people, the Cyclones finished the regular season with a season high score of 196.600.

If the Cyclones want to have a chance, they’ll need a repeat performance of their meet in Alabama.

“If we do what we’ve been training to do and really just let go of the stress of everything, I think we can give them a run for their money definitely,” Ledesma said. “We have some really good talent on this team and we’re not a new team. We’re still that team that shook up Alabama so I think we can shake [Oklahoma] up a little.”