Breaking Boundaries – NCAA Teams To Watch! Part 2

By Ashlee Buhler for Inside Gymnastics

Next Up: The Iowa Hawkeyes

Since the time women’s gymnastics was introduced as an NCAA championship sport in 1982, only six teams have won a national title. In recent years, conference titles have been tossed back and forth between the same two or three teams.

The tide seems to shift every few years and new teams emerge as ones to watch. However, it does not happen overnight. A college team on the rise begins with a coaching staff that is experienced, but also knows how to bring out the best in their athletes, as a team and as individuals. It continues with strong recruiting—finding athletes who are not only talented and passionate about the sport, but who show leadership qualities on and off the competition floor. It culminates when the sparkly leotards are on and the lights come up; the hard work in the gym, the talent on the roster, and the cohesiveness as a team leads to success on the competition floor. Those who can keep this cycle going over time will eventually find themselves breaking the boundaries. And the tide will shift again.

In this three-part series, we take an in-depth look at some NCAA gymnastics teams on the rise and right on the verge of shaking up the rankings. Next up: Iowa.

It’s no secret that Michigan has dominated the Big 10 conference for decades. Other teams sneaking in to win the coveted Big 10 title have been far and few in between. However, the Iowa Hawkeyes are ready to change the narrative.

Under the guidance of Larissa Libby, who became the head coach at Iowa in 2005, the Hawkeyes have had a steady rise. However, their progress and results in the last several years are what really make them ones to watch. In 2013 the Hawkeyes finished last in the Big 10 Championships. However, in 2017, just four years later, they were fourth, with their best championship score in program history. That year they also qualified to regionals, and narrowly missed qualifying a team to the NCAA Championships. After putting up a program record 49.600 on beam, the Hawkeyes missed nationals by one tenth.

Iowa has been a school consistently ranked in the top 30 nationally during Libby’s tenure, but this year they are on a different trajectory and it’s an exciting journey to watch!

Turning Heads In 2021

When the preseason coaches’ poll came out, the Hawkeyes were ranked 25th in the nation. So far, they are exceeding expectations. The Hawkeyes catapulted to ninth place nationally after the first meet of the season—their highest ranking in program history. The previous highest ranking came in 2003 when the Hawkeyes were 11th. The Hawkeyes maintained their ninth place ranking the following week in addition to becoming the No. 1 ranked floor team, with two of the nation’s top floor workers, Lauren Guerin and Clair Kaji, in the lineup.

Following the second consecutive week at No. 9, Libby’s mindset was practical, yet optimistic.

“Next week we might not be ranked there, and I know that,” Libby said. “I know there are plenty of amazing teams left to go, but guess what? We got there. And we held it for two weeks. We backed that up once, so who’s to say we can’t back it up again?”

The Hawkeyes ended up dropping one spot in the national rankings—they currently sit in 10th. However, they also remain in the top 10 on beam and floor. Despite the obstacles leading into this season, the Hawkeyes look to be on track to have one of their strongest seasons.

Libby attributes the team’s early success in 2021 to the challenges of 2020. Between the COVID-19 Pandemic and having conversations sparked by social injustices, Libby feels the team’s connection is deeper and stronger than ever, which translates to how they work in the gym.

“I think what it boils down to for us is the investment in each other became so much more important, on such a different level,” Libby said. “We have a culture where we are very open and honest, and communication is at the heart of everything that we do. We just kind of realized, ‘Wow, we talk about all these things, but we never talk about this stuff—why don’t we?’ From that moment moving forward, conversations and communication became more important and their connection to each other is much deeper.”

Having talent on the team also helps. In addition to a stellar group of upperclassmen, the Hawkeyes have a strong group of freshman and sophomores to build off any success that this season brings and help keep the momentum going for years to come.

Many eyes are on sophomore JerQuavia Henderson, who came into college as a three-time JO national qualifier and a national champion on vault. She made her All-Around debut Jan. 31 after missing last season due to injury and posted an impressive score of 39.325, which has her ranked 14th nationally.

The Hawkeyes also snagged freshman Adeline Kenlin, a former U.S. National team member, who comes equipped with a plethora of Elite level experience. In her short time as a Hawkeye, Kenlin has already won her first Big 10 Freshman of the Week honor.

“Certainly, we have stronger recruits and that helps us be a stronger unit gymnastically, but at the end of the day you still have to compete,” Libby said. “It doesn’t matter. You can have Olympians—they still fall.”

In Libby’s eyes, success happens when the team stays true to themselves and feels gratitude, especially in times of uncertainty. It’s working for them this season.

“There is that little bit of magic in them right now,” Libby said. “I think this is a group of young women who really and truly appreciate every opportunity that is put in front of them.”

Looking Ahead

Winning an NCAA national title is what most teams strive for. However, for a team like Iowa, the next sequential step is winning a Big 10 championship—something they have never done before.

“If you can’t stand up in your own conference as one of the best consistently, how do you put a picture forward for yourself of being the best in the country?” Libby said. “I feel like you kind of have to earn that within your conference first. That’s always been a goal for us.”

Of course, there are other goals as well, like winning a Big 10 regular season title and qualifying to NCAA regionals. Libby has led the Hawkeyes to 19 consecutive regional appearances, but a trip to the NCAA championship has alluded them in recent years. Iowa has not had a full team at nationals since 2004, but as it stands, Iowa is trending in the right direction to make that goal a reality.

“This is the year that everything could change; that we will no more be underrated, that we have the right team assembled and everything that was Iowa Gymnastics before, will no longer be,” Libby said. “That is the overarching goal for us internally this year—to take on all of the things that we wanted to do and make it in our control.”

Stay tuned for next week, when we take an in-depth look at the Minnesota Golden Gophers.

Photo credit Brian Ray/hawkeyesports.com

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