The West Virginia University gymnastics program has come along way since its inception in 1975. It has gone from a struggling newcomer to national power under the tutelage of head coach Linda Burdette.
Burdette took over the fledgling program in just its second year and has guided the Mountaineers to 19 regionals and four national tournaments, including three in the last six years.
"There were a lot of teams in that same situation because they were just developing teams for women," Burdette said. "They were just developing women's sports at the time. They were at a pretty low level skill."
It didn't take the team long to begin to evolve. In Burdette's third year, it qualified as a team to the regional championships in the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for women (AIAW), the female counterpart to the NCAA which governed competition through 1982. In 1979, she sent her first individual qualifier to the national championships.
She said the reason the school was able to progress so quickly was it's competition. Fairmont State had the only other team in the state so they were forced to travel and play national powers like Penn State, Clarion, Slipper yRock and Ohio State.
"We were forced to go out an compete against good schools," she said. "Obviously we lost a lot of meets, but what happened was we were able to recruit a lot of good girls that weren't being recruited by those schools and wanted to compete against the best."
Burdette thinks that influx of talent helped the team progress faster than a lot of other sports on campus at that time.
In 1982, the Mountaineers finished third at what would be the last AIAW national championships. That marked a huge step for the eighth-year program. It helped recruiting and changed the perception of the public and even judges who were coming to meets.
The next year WVU started a stretch of 18 straight years advancing to at least the NCAA regionals. In 1995 and again in 1999 and 2000, the team advanced to the national championships changing the focus of the program.
"We plan to go to the NCAAs," Burdette said. "But we still have a lot of things to do to get there. It won't be easy."
Coming up short last year prompted the returning gymnasts to step up the difficulty of their routines, particularly on bars and floor.
"I'm not competing hardly ady freshmen at all," Burdette said. "It is all my upperclassmen. They have stepped it up such a large notch in what they expect out of themselves and the team."
Currently WVU is ranked No. 16 in the nation, and Burdette expects them to keep climbing.
"Depth wise, this is the strongest team we have ever had," Burdette said. "Our first up on every event can score the same as our last up, and I think we have never had that."
Junior Kristen Macrie and sophomores Amanda Halovanic, Dinorh Boyd and TeShawne Jackson have led the Mountaineers this season while competing in all four events.
Boyd is ranked 14th in the nation in all-around and Jackson is ninth on the floor, while the two are tied for the second highest all-around score in school history at 30.5.
In addition, junior Jamie Hill is ranked 15th in the nation on bars.
Sports writer Shawn Yonker can be reached at 626-1444 or by E-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.