Jan. 7, before ASU gymnastics kicked off its 2014 campaign, coach John Spini announced he would step down at the end of the season.
Spini, who has coached four NCAA runner-up teams and coached six of his gymnasts to a total of 10 NCAA individual titles, let the team know he’d be stepping down after 34 years at the helm of Sun Devil gymnastics.
However, Spini had one more season left to coach, and so the campaign began.
ASU, once a consistent national contender, has fallen on hard times in recent years, and was not expected to perform especially well in Spini’s final year. After taking second place in a tri-meet to open the year, the prospects for 2014 were not looking good.
Then, the Sun Devils took a trip to Seattle on Jan. 18 to take on Washington, UC Davis and San Jose State, which took first place in ASU’s first meet.
The Sun Devils put together a complete performance, finishing with a strong score of 195.900, good enough for first place.
With an impressive road win under their belts, the Sun Devils’ confidence grew more in a home meet versus California, where it hit an even 196.000 as ASU dominated the Golden Bears.
ASU would face its two toughest opponents of the season in the next two weeks, losing to both Utah and UCLA. After a rebound win against the Cougars from BYU, ASU looked to avenge a 2013 loss to UA as the Sun Devils hosted the Wildcats.
ASU hit on all its routines against UA en route to a convincing 196.125-195.350 victory, ensuring Spini would go out on top of the arch-rival Wildcats.
Hard times would come again for the Sun Devils, as they suffered a loss to Oregon State and Nebraska in a tri-meet and were thoroughly dominated in a road meet against Oklahoma. In warm-ups of the meet versus the Sooners, freshman Gilly Hogue, who excelled on vault and balance beam in her first year in Tempe, suffered an Achilles injury and was ruled out for the remainder of the season.
Senior Sammie Seaman and Spini said goodbye in their last home meet on March 14 as ASU dominated from beginning to end, coming out victorious over Northern Illinois with its highest score of the season in a 196.175-195.000 win.
Having wrapped up the regular season, ASU headed to the Pac-12 championships, looking to improve on its last-place finish in 2013. While it only moved up one spot in the final standings, ASU improved its score from 193.425 in 2013 to 195.300.
Having come up short in the Pac-12 championships, ASU turned its attention to regionals, where it was given a four seed. ASU performed well but didn’t put together a complete performance, like it had in previous meets, and took fourth place, ending the season and Spini’s storybook career.
“This (2014) team definitely exceeded expectations, I think from people all over the country. We’re young but have a lot of experience,” assistant coach Tom Ward said.
Ever the humble man, Spini made sure to not take the focus away from his gymnasts, but his impact has and will be felt on collegiate gymnastics for years to come.
“This was my first year coaching, so he’s the only coach I’ve worked under. I’ve learned a lot from him,” assistant coach Hollie Vise said. “He’s kind of taught me the way of NCAA gymnastics. I’ve competed and coached club gymnastics, but the way NCAA is run is totally different. … Because (coaching) is what I want to do, I’ll always refer back to what he taught me this year.”
In the immediate future, ASU is looking to hire its next head coach. No word is known whether ASU will be looking to hire from the outside or within.
Pertaining to next season, ASU is losing Seaman, a strong competitor on vault and floor. However, it returns all of the other 22 routines it consistently used in 2014, and Hogue and freshmen Kellie Wanamaker will be returning healthy from injuries and will be ready to go in their sophomore years.
Reach the reporter firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @shane_writes