When the Arizona State women’s gymnastics team upset rival University of Arizona last year late in the season, it was hoped that would be a preview of good things to come for a program that needed resuscitation.
And now it looks like that, indeed, was the case.
The Sun Devils were under the direction of first-year head coach Jay Santos and the win over the No. 23-ranked Wildcats marked the first regular-season Pac-12 victory in three years. That’s how far the program had fallen.
Now, after huge wins over No. 16 Auburn and No. 18 West Virginia, the GymDevils are ranked No. 11 nationally. And that’s after being projected in the preseason to finish eighth in the conference. Over-achieving has become a standard for this team.
Santos and his wife, Jessica, who serves as associate head coach, took over the program in May of 2016 and set about to rebuild a program that won a total of three dual meets during two years under Rene Lyst, who had been co-head coach at Arkansas but success in Tempe turned out to be a desert mirage.
Lyst found it difficult to step into the role held by nationally-recognized coach, John Spini, who retired after 34 seasons at ASU. A four-time Pac-12 Coach of the Year, Spini guided his teams to 32 post-season appearances and qualified for 21 NCAA Championships. Four of his teams finished as the NCAA runner-up and nine of his teams finished a season ranked in the top five nationally.
Santos was hired to return the program to the success it enjoyed under Spini. The husband-wife duo coached Eastern Michigan to the 2016 Mid-American Conference Championship, the program’s first-ever NCAA Regional appearance, and finished the season ranked 17th in the nation – the highest in the history of the program.
This year, a regional appearance is the goal for the GymDevils, Santos said in a preseason interview. Last season, the goal was just to begin instilling a culture of hard work and high expectations. Things started to jell about halfway through the season and culminated with a big confidence-building win over Arizona to build some momentum for the second year.
It appears to be working. ASU finished second in a quad meet it hosted to open the season and then stunned West Virginia in a dual meet on the road in Morgantown, scoring a sizzling 196.475 points against the Big 12 opponent.
But it only gets more difficult from here. The GymDevils have three more teams to take on that were ranked nationally last season, and then compete against five other programs that all advanced to compete in the 2017 national championships: Oklahoma, Utah, Washington, Denver, and Oregon State.
Santos is working with 22 routines and 12 letter winners from last season, but just one senior, 5’2″ Nichelle Christopherson, who competes in the all-around. The roster includes five juniors and six sophomores.
But it could be the additions he has made this year that spell the difference in success over last year. Santos picked up two transfers in Anne Kuhm from University of Paris and Kaitlyn Szafranski from LSU. Kuhm brings experience against international competition with her to Tempe after participating as a member of the French national team since 2009 and as a member of Team France at the 2012 London Olympics.
Add to that three freshmen who could make an immediate impact this year and the ASU squad is deeper and more talented than those of recent years. One of those freshmen, Cairo Leonard-Baker, is expected to jump-start her college career this season. The former Northern California state bars champion has been competing at the Junior Olympic level since 2012.
It’s a long way from here to March 24, when the Pac-12 Championships are scheduled. Jay and Jess Santos have the ASU program off to a great start in their second year, but the road back to greatness has a bunch of speed bumps that lay just ahead.
And the next bump on that road will come this afternoon in California when the GymDevils take on No. 20 Stanford at The Farm.
(Photo: ASU Athletics)