April 3, 2009
IOWA CITY, IA – Earlier this season, after Iowa’s dual meet loss to Southern Utah Feb. 20, head coach Larissa Libby began to have doubts that her team would not qualify for the Regional competition they were hosting in just eight short weeks.
She huddled her team up in the locker room after the loss and was on the verge of tears. Another one of Iowa’s gymnasts was lost to a season-ending injury, the sixth team member to be lost for the season due to injury.
Libby wanted to take four days off. Her gymnasts wouldn’t have it.
“They wanted to practice,” said Libby. “They said that we couldn’t be the best if we didn’t practice. I had my doubts. They didn’t.”
The GymHawks went on to win two of their last three dual meets in convincing fashion (Feb. 28 – Maryland; March 6 – Kentucky), despite a loss at Minnesota March 14. Thanks to that strong late-season push, the GymHawks solidified their postseason place, qualifying to the NCAA North Central regional.
This Saturday, the University of Iowa will host the competition inside Carver-Hawkeye Arena and will be joined by Florida, UCLA, Minnesota, Denver and Iowa State. Both Libby and Iowa State head coach Jay Ronayne are grasping their newly-found “underdog” role, as Iowa State is the meet’s fifth seed and Iowa the sixth.
“At this point in the season, there are no bad teams left. Everybody starts over again,” said Libby. “For us, we feel like we can qualify [for Nationals]. There’s no pressure on us right now. Any pressure we have is self-inflicted. Sometimes it’s better to have luck on your side than be talented.”
“When you’re the underdog, nobody really expects much out of you,” added Ronayne. “We’ve got nothing to defend here. I’d rather chase than be chased.” The Cyclones know what the setting will be like Saturday inside Carver-Hawkeye Arena. They competed against the GymHawks back on Feb. 16, dropping a hotly-contested dual meet, 194.675 – 194.600. Ronayne hopes the experience of having already competed at Carver-Hawkeye this season will serve his team well come Saturday.
“Our kids love this arena,” said Ronayne. “It’s a comfortable place for gymnastics and a great place to compete. We’ve been through the experience here earlier this season, which should give us a little bit of an edge over some of the other teams in the field.”
“A little luck wouldn’t hurt. If they walk into the arena tomorrow knowing they belong, they can do it. If we don’t make it, it won’t be because of lack of effort. We want to leave it all out on the floor and walk away with no regrets whatsoever. From that point, whatever happens is going to happen.”
Iowa Head Coach Larissa Libby
But no team is more comfortable with the setting than the hometown Hawkeyes. After dropping the season home opener to LSU and Southeast Missouri State back on Jan. 9, the GymHawks reeled off four straight meet wins to close the season. The momentum of playing at home on their own equipment and in front of their own fans is something that Libby hopes plays to her team’s advantage.
“I think to be able to compete at home takes out some uncertainty with our kids, but it adds pressure at the same time,” Libby said last week. “They don’t think they have any less of a shot. On any day, any team can win.”
The top two teams in each regional will advance to the national competition April 16 in Lincoln, NE. In addition, each event winner will qualify for nationals, as will the top two all-around performers not on a qualifying team.
Iowa senior Jenifer Simbhudas hopes she is one of those two. Missteps have sidetracked Simbhudas from making it to nationals each of the past two seasons, but she hopes she can break through Saturday, in what will be her final shot at qualifying.
“We’ve done all we can in the gym to make it this far,” said Simbhudas. “I’m just so happy it’s finally here. Playing at home definitely keeps our nerves down because we’ve competed here all year.”
“She’s done everything she can to lead,” said Libby of Simbhudas. “It’s been a tough task for her this year, but she’s handled everything that’s come at her.”
In what has been her most challenging and fulfilling season as head coach, Libby knows her team has a battle ahead of them tomorrow So what’s it going to take for the GymHawks to make it in the top two Saturday?
“A little luck wouldn’t hurt,” said Libby. “If they walk into the arena tomorrow knowing they belong, they can do it. If we don’t make it, it won’t be because of lack of effort. We want to leave it all out on the floor and walk away with no regrets whatsoever. From that point, whatever happens is going to happen.”