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IOWA CITY — Throughout the season, Larissa Libby started to pick up on some small things about her women’s gymnastics team.
The Iowa head coach certainly knew they were tough. She knew they had a chance to be pretty good. But when the team scored its highest team points total ever at the Big Ten Championships, finishing third, Libby knew something very special could be in the works.
Finishing less than seventh-tenths of a point behind Michigan, a perennial powerhouse, was huge and she knew it created some buzz.
“The proudest moments in my life, outside of my family and children, are when people are talking about your kids and it’s not their gymnastics,” Libby said. “When they’re talking about how fun they are, how happy they are, how they’re different to watch.”
Libby has spent 13 years at Iowa trying to make the program different and the success had come in waves of differing heights. A facility upgrade two years ago provided a needed boost to the program and the room the GymHawks — the team’s self-identifying moniker — share with the men’s team seems to have a bit more energy.
The goal for Libby is to be taken seriously year-in and year-out as a perennial contender. Iowa has been awash in individual talent over the last several years and it’s helped, but with seniors Mollie Drenth and Angel Metcalf in the twilight of their college careers, the pressure is on.
The confidence, however, is too as 17th-ranked Iowa heads to Champaign, Ill., for an NCAA regional meet Saturday at 4 p.m. No. 5 UCLA, No. 8 Oregon State, Illinois, Eastern Michigan and Ohio State will also compete.
“We expected to get on the podium at Big Tens and we expected to go to nationals,” Drenth said. “That’s what’s different this year.”
The culture surrounding the team is certainly stronger than perhaps it’s ever been around the program. There just seems to be a different aura around the team than in years past.
Libby struggled to put a finger on what exactly it was that has shifted and improved. But she sees things. She knows the chances of her athletes competing in the Olympics aren’t huge, reminding gently only five women get to represent the United States, so she focuses on the smaller things.
NCAA accolades, getting more people to come to gymnastics meets, working social media, using the “GymHawks” brand, interacting with fans — the list goes on.
It’s worked, too. The gymnastics team had the third-highest ticket sales last year among women’s sports, behind only basketball and volleyball.
“Something is building and it’s something people want to watch,” Libby said. “The world is wanting genuine sincerity right now and they show that.”
To truly compete at the highest level, there’s still work to do. Iowa has never won a conference title or, for that matter, scratched the surface of an NCAA championship either. This year’s third-place finish at the Big Ten meet was the best since 2010, when it also finished third.
Compounding a good Big Ten year with a solid showing at the NCAA regional would do wonders for the Hawkeye program. Libby tends to build her team using more out-of-state talent (21 of 23 gymnasts aren’t from Iowa) and having those type of accolades tends to help.
But during this weekend, the focus isn’t on the future and what can or might be — it’s on what’s directly in front of them.
“Do I think we’re a national contender? Oh, most certainly,” Metcalf said. “I wouldn’t underestimate us.”
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