Lofty goals have become an annual measuring stick for the TWU gymnastics program, and the 2013 season, which begins Saturday, is no different. The Pioneers boast a nationally recognized program and want to build on that stature this year.
In 2012, three Pioneers qualified for the NCAA regional meet; this season, TWU aspires to qualify as a team for the first time. And a year ago, the Pioneers placed second at the USA Gymnastics National Championships; this year they’re aiming for the school’s 10th national crown.
“Last year was great, but we know we’re capable of doing better,” senior Bethany Larimer said. “We know we’re capable of winning [a national championship], and we really want to qualify for regionals as a team for the first time in the school’s history.”
Second-year head coach Lisa Bowerman prefers to focus on the more immediate objective of the team performing better, meet to meet, than it did in her debut campaign.
“Our goal last year was to improve every week, and we did a great job of that throughout most of the season,” Bowerman said. “This year our goals going into the season are similar, but we know if we want to qualify for regionals, we’ve got to start the season with a higher score and improve from there.”
Indications are that the Pioneers are stocked with enough talent to not only score better this weekend in a dual meet at Bowling Green than they did in last year’s opener, but also to make a solid run at those higher goals they’re eyeing for the postseason.
Five seniors anchor the squad, and the Pioneers return six gymnasts who earned USAG All-America first-team recognition in 11 events last season. The core of that group is junior Courtney Cochefski, who won a national title on uneven bars, and Larimer, who was an All-American in vault, bars and balance beam.
“I think we’re going to do big things this year,” Cochefski said. “We have the same purpose. We have a lot of depth on bars and beam this year, and we’re getting more people back on floor [exercise] and vault, so we should be good.”
Cochefski was one of three Pioneers who qualified for last year’s NCAA regional meet, finishing in a tie for eighth place on bars. Sophomore Kayla Jones qualified in vault and tied for 10th, while then-senior Rashonda Cannie represented TWU in all-around.
Bowerman said Larimer is “one of the rocks of our program.” The Carrollton native performed in her three specialties at all 14 meets last season and will take on a similar workload this year.
“She’s got experience and she’s tough,” Bowerman said. “She knows how to compete. She’s going to be someone we lean on a lot.”
Kristin Edwards is another returning senior with USAG All-America honors on her resume, having earned that recognition on floor exercise last season.
Three other seniors are making comebacks from injuries that wiped out their 2012 seasons: Brittany Johnson, Brittany Montalbano and Amy Winczura.
Winczura has fully healed from a shoulder injury and, after competing as a sophomore in all-around, is expected to be in the lineup for vault, bars and floor. TWU’s depth on beam may let her focus on just three events.
Johnson and Montalbano are still rebuilding their conditioning and skills, and Bowerman said she’ll bring them back into the mix slowly as they regain their form.
“They both have really worked hard,” Bowerman said. “At this point we’re focusing on making sure they’re strong and conditioned. We want them to be 100 percent at the end of the season instead of 50 percent all season.”
Several other returning performers, including sophomore Spencer Jones, junior Tori Cochefski, junior Paisley Read and junior Margaret Mayfield, have the coaches excited based on preseason workouts.
Jones, a Calvary graduate, enjoyed an outstanding freshman debut on floor, earning USAG All-America honors and being named Newcomer of the Year in the Midwest Independent Conference.
“Beam and floor are going to be her shining events, but she’ll compete in vault and bars for us quite a bit,” Bowerman said. “She’ll be one we’ll rely on for consistency.”
Life for Bowerman figures to be more settled this winter. A year ago she was replacing retiring head coach Frank Kudlac, who founded the program in 1978 and built it into a national powerhouse by winning nine Division II championships. Bowerman also gave birth to her first child just days before making her head coaching debut.
“Frank had me prepared to take over the program,” Bowerman said. “He’s been an incredible support system for me. He’s had a big part in making me feel like this program is my own now.
“In a lot of ways going into this year, there are a lot less questions in my mind about what to expect,” she said. “But I still feel the same anticipation, excitement and wondering about what this team is going to accomplish. That’s something that I hope I’ll feel every year.”
The Pioneers will host four meets at Kitty Magee Arena: Jan. 19 against Arizona, BYU and Wisconsin-Whitewater; Feb. 2 against Lindenwood; Feb. 24 against Air Force, Centenary and Illinois-Chicago); and March 1 against Oklahoma. ... TWU junior Paisley Reed is expected to compete mostly on bars and beam this season. ... Junior Margaret Mayfield has recovered from ankle injuries that limited her last season and will compete in vault, beam and bars. ... The MIC meet (March 23) and the USAG national meet (April 12-14) will be held in Shreveport, La.
TWU GYMNASTICS AT A GLANCE
Head coach: Lisa Bowerman (second year)
Home arena: Kitty Magee Arena (capacity 1,800)
Conference: Midwest Independent Conference (NCAA Division II)
Region: South Central
2012 record: 14-14
2012 conference finish: third
2012 USAG meet finish: second
Letter winners returning/lost: 12/5