It’s somewhat difficult to describe two schools as rivals when they are in different conferences, different states and 1,653 miles separate their campuses. Yet when it comes to gymnastics, TWU and the University of Bridgeport have become adversaries.
But is there a true rivalry there?
“Yeah, I think so,” said TWU’s second-year head coach Lisa Bowerman, who has her Pioneers primed for today’s opening session of the USA Gymnastics national meet in Shreveport, La. “Obviously they’ve had a lot of success the last few years. They kind of came out of nowhere, honestly.”
For years, TWU was the favorite heading into the three-day meet. And the Pioneers usually backed up that label, winning nine national championships and building a tradition that opponents respected and aspired to match.
Over the last four years, however, Bridgeport has emerged as a powerhouse in Division II gymnastics. The Purple Knights from Connecticut have won the last five Eastern College Athletic Conference Division II titles and this season became the second Division II program to qualify as a team for an NCAA regional.
But what really has the attention of the Pioneers is that Bridgeport has claimed the last four USAG national titles, bumping TWU to second-place finishes in each of the last three meets.
“They weren’t even a part of the championship not that many years ago,” said Bowerman, who was a Pioneer assistant coach when TWU last won a national crown in 2008. “When they came in a few years ago, knowing that we were the team to beat, I think they came out gunning for us.
“TWU, obviously, has a very strong history at the championships and has won the championship more times than any other team,” she said. “Bridgeport has now won the last four, so naturally there is that desire from us to get it back. This is the championship that we’ve been so successful at, so it’s obvious we want to get it back.”
The Pioneers enter the eight-team meet as the No. 2 seed — behind Bridgeport — and begin semifinal competition at 2 p.m. today. The top two teams from each semifinal round will advance to Saturday’s team finals at 7 p.m. The individual event finals are slated for 1 p.m. Sunday.
Bowerman said the budding rivalry between No. 56 TWU and No. 34 Bridgeport has heated up to the point where the Knights are not shy about taking pleasure in beating the Pioneers. Bowerman said the Knights openly showed their excitement when the Pioneers made mistakes at the 2010 and 2011 USAG meets.
“They have shown that they’re not disappointed when we make mistakes,” Bowerman said. “We had falls and made mistakes that opened the door for them, and they didn’t hold back in letting us know they were excited about those mistakes.
“Gymnastics is not a trash talking, taunting kind of sport,” she said. “It was different from what people are used to seeing in gymnastics.”
Bridgeport and TWU are the favorites to return home with this year’s title. Bridgeport boasts an average score of 194.725 this season, best in the field, while TWU’s average of 192.941 is No. 2.
Bowerman said she believes the Pioneers’ mindset is such that they will be serious contenders to break Bridgeport’s grip on the championship. They’ve built momentum by performing their best in late-season meets and have expressed the confidence to add to TWU’s history in the sport.
Led by Bethany Larimer (vault, season-high 9.900), Courtney Cochefski (bars, 9.850), Kristin Edwards (floor exercise, 9.875) and Calvary graduate Spencer Jones in balance beam (9.850) and all-around (39.000), the Pioneers appear to have the depth and experience to challenge for the crown.
“I honestly believe if [the Purple Knights] hit and we hit, it’s going to be close,” Bowerman said. “But I do think we’re capable of winning.
“And I think our team, more than they have in a long time, really wants it,” Bowerman said. “Sometimes in the past I’ve gotten the impression that they didn’t want to hear all the talk about our nine championships and our history because that made them nervous or created pressure they didn’t want. This year there’s more of a feeling that they really want it.”
This year’s meet is being hosted by Centenary College, where TWU captured its last national title in 2008.
ON THE WEB
TWU assistant athletic director Jeff Bowerman will be hosting a live chat all three days of the meet at www.twuathletics.com .