(Tucson, AZ) Kim Doss
This is the second part of our interview with Arizona GymCats head coach John Court. If you missed the first part, please check it out.
Twenty years is a long time to work as an assistant coach at one institution, but Arizona GymCats head coach John Court loves the University of Arizona. After starting his career in the northeastern US, he came to Tucson to work for former coach Bill Ryden in 1998. Now, he finally has the opportunity to learn what it takes to lead the gymnastics program at a major university. It’s not just about the routines and start values. It’s about having a goal, and it’s about people.
“You’ve been here a long time, but you finally are in the decision-making in a really special place,” Court said. “I have certainly played a lot of roles, and then one’s different. Because you can say that you understand what has to be done and all the responsibilities, but you really don’t know exactly until you’re sitting in that chair and the program is yours. Then, you get to take all your ideas that you have had for years and years, not just from Arizona, but the things that you’ve learned from other universities and other coaches I really respected, take everything and move it to your own program and culture.”
Before a single athlete is recruited, the head coach needs to have a vision and surround himself with people who will help him implement it. Court has developed his vision and hired his staff, but what is the vision and how do they plan to make it a reality?
The words Court uses to describe the components of that vision are “culture,” “chemistry,” and “expectations.” These have to be instilled in the current student-athletes and cultivated in the next group. It is an easier job if the people have certain inherent characteristics and share the same values, he said.
When recruiting athletes, Court said he’s looking for great people who want the same things. He wants to see those who will strive to maintain or improve the 3.6 GPA achieved by the team this past season and become Academic All-Americans. He wants those who are committed to getting out in the Tucson community to represent their university and program. And, yes, he wants to see those who are committed to the hard work that will help them compete against teams that boast former Elite gymnasts, like UCLA and Utah.
“We want you to love gymnastics, not just like it,” he said. “When you love it, you’ll go the extra mile. When you love it, you’ll get up at 6 am. You’ll make sure you’re ready to go. Make sure you’re ready to run, climb stadiums, hit the weight room, and be there to support your teammates. And that’s that cultural piece.”
Last season, Arizona lacked depth, and was severely limited by that as the season wore on. Injuries sidelined athletes, and there was no one there to step up. At the PAC-12 Championships, Arizona only sent five gymnasts to compete on floor exercise instead of the customary six, even though only two of the five scored a 9.8 or higher.
“Floor, especially, is about depth,” Court explained. “We have to be deeper at every position.”
He expects new assistant Taylor Spears to be a key figure in recruiting that depth. As a native Texan, she has connections in a state rich in sports talent. More importantly, her achievements in college will speak to the recruits who want to get where she’s already been. To that end, it’s important to get Spears out on the recruiting trail as soon as possible.
“If you’re 15 years old, 16 years old, and you’re any athlete in that gym [where Spears is recruiting],” Court said, “if any athlete Googles her name, you’re going to see a whole bunch of stuff come right up. You’re going to see her holding her championship trophy, a picture with her ring, and all of her stats as an athlete. So, as an athlete you look at it and go, ‘Wow, that’s really cool, because she was able to do that. So, how did she do that? I think I would like to be involved with a program that she’s in.’ So, there’s certainly a little bit of a recruiting hook.”
Depth will also be helped by the increase in the number of athletes the team will have. There will be up to 20 athletes allowed next season compared to the 14-15 they have had in the past.
Both the incoming freshmen and the returners will have big shoes to fill. Arizona lost three seniors who accounted for eight of their 24 routines last year. One of those seniors was the only athlete who competed the all-around in every meet. The program will welcome at least four newcomers to help fill that void, but Court also expects the returning athletes to improve and increase the number of events they compete.
Some of those returners were already major contributors. Rising junior Chrissy Berg was one of two GymCats who qualified for regionals last season. She also joined departing seniors Madison Cindric and Kennady Schneider as team captains while just a sophomore. Berg’s classmate Maddi Leydin will be an important contributor, as well. She joined Cindric as the only two all-around competitors for Arizona this past season. The team also returns most of the competitors on the balance beam.
Once the depth is built, it’s time to maximize scores. While the balance beam became a strong event for the team as the season progressed and the uneven parallel bars are a traditional strength, Court said that the struggles on the leg events (vault and floor) need to be addressed.
“Athletically, we have some things to do,” he said. “We need to score more 9.8s.”
There are several ways to do that. If the level of tumbling isn’t sufficient to gain those scores, it’s important to focus on performance, he said. This is an area that Spears has experience in. With her help, the Tar Heels raised their floor exercise scores last season. The team ranked sixth in the nation on the event, according to UNC athletics. Because the performance aspect is so important on floor exercise, her experience focusing on choreography and music could help the GymCats in an event that was anchored by Schneider last season.
The importance of improving can’t be overstated considering the teams Arizona will face in the 2018-19 season. The PAC-12 is always a gauntlet, boasting multiple top 10 teams with several former Olympians. Court doesn’t use that as an excuse to water down the non-conference slate, though.
The schedule for the upcoming season was just finalized, and he believes it will please the fans. Last year saw crowds of over 3000 people in McKale Center, and he plans to treat those loyal fans to a slate of highly ranked teams from around the country.
“With our home meets, we want to always have a competitive schedule, so our fans can have a great experience,” Court explained. “It’s a great family environment. You’re in and out in a couple of hours. We need to make sure that on Friday night, it’s the best show in town.”
The year will kick off with the home showcase in December. This is an introduction to the team. On the road, Arizona will open their season traveling to Central Michigan to compete in a four-team invitational.
After that, the GymCats will host a series of three top 10 opponents from last season. Opening night brings the Arkansas Razorbacks to McKale Center in a special event honoring the Girl Scouts. They will be followed by conference opponents Cal and Washington.
The home slate will end with a return visit from SEC champion Louisiana State University, who the GymCats visited last season.
“Usually, you don’t see a team of LSU’s caliber in Tucson, in any sport, as far as a head-to-head thing” Court said. “If I had to guess, it would probably be softball who brings some folks like that in.”
When all is said and done, the team hopes to be one of the top 36 teams in the nation again, so they can advance to regionals as a group. They ended last season at #38, just outside qualification for the NCAA tournament. For the first time in years, Arizona didn’t get to experience the post-season as a team, instead sending only two gymnasts to regionals. With a familiar face finally getting the chance to lead the program and a top-notch staff in place, the GymCats will set their sights on seeing that it doesn’t happen again.