By: Grant Wall
Big 12 Campus Correspondent
Expectations are high around the Iowa State gymnastics team.
The Cyclones competed literally on one leg last season, as injuries sidelined several of the top members of the squad. Nonetheless, ISU came within a tenth of a point of claiming the Big 12 Championship and advanced to NCAA Regional competition for the 12th straight season.
A year ago, freshman Alexandra Grant went down in pre-season workout with an Achilles injury that cost her the entire season. Megan Barnes, the 2007 Big 12 Newcomer of the Year, missed the first four contests rehabbing a back injury. Freshman Jacquelyn Holmes was injured midway through the season and missed the last seven meets. Add in the dings and nicks that come with the regular grind of gymnastics competition and Iowa State's 2008 season came wrapped in bandages.
This season, the squad is healthy and experienced. The Cyclones return nearly their entire lineup which is highlighted by all-arounders Nikki Dilbert and Jasmine Thompson.
“This is huge for us,” Iowa State head coach Jay Ronayne said. “We are approaching it (the season) like we are going to win every single meet, win the Big 12 Championship, going to qualify for Regionals, go to Nationals and make the Super Six.
“That is the way we are approaching this season. We are looking forward to going out there and making that happen right away.”
With event specialists in every rotation, plus Dilbert and Thompson, the return of Megan Barnes is a huge boost for the Cyclones.
As a freshman, Barnes finished 25th nationally in the vault rankings and was an all-arounder in all but two ISU meets. After regaining her health, Barnes' 9.90 score on vault last season was good for third at the Big 12 Championships.
“It’s a different outlook when you have a team that is healthy,” Barnes said. “We have a new strategy this season since we have so much depth. Having that depth makes you want to work harder and makes the standard in the gym higher. Everyone in the gym wants to be at their best.”
With her injury behind her, Barnes is already making an impact in the Cyclone lineup.
“She’s looking great,” Ronayne said. “Her vault is No. 1 on the team and she is in our top three on bars and floor. She is going to be very good this year and is going to live up to the promise her freshman year held for us. She will be able to live up to the expectations that come with that.”
Last season's injury-riddled team finished the season with just five student-athletes available for floor competition. Without a sixth competitor, the Cyclones were unable to throw out their worst score. That put pressure on all five competitors to be perfect.
“We are in a lot better situation right now than last season because our depth is so much better,” Ronayne said. “We were so shallow with five competitors on floor and now we have a choice of nine or 10, and all the other events have increased depth as well. Our top five or six are competitive with anyone in the country.”
Three freshmen – Shea Anderson, Michelle Browning and Celine Paulus – have added to the choices the Iowa State coaches have on each event.
“We have strength that we haven’t had over the last two years. Someone is always ready to step in,” Barnes said.
Iowa State has an imposing schedule this season, going head-to-head with Auburn, Michigan, Minnesota, Iowa and West Virginia. That precedes Big 12 matches with Missouri, Nebraska and Oklahoma, all strong teams.
“Our mindset is to go out there and blow everyone away and to show what ISU gymnastics can be,” Barnes said. “We’ve worked really hard and we are excited to show everyone that.”
The high hopes include a return to the NCAA Championships as a team for the first time since 2006.
“This team is definitely capable of going all the way to NCAA Nationals,” Holmes said. “We have so much talent on our team, we just need everyone to stay healthy and we will make it.”