MORGANTOWN — Zaakira Muhammad has been there before, competing under the bright lights and the pressure.
“Making it to the nationals is something you can’t really describe,” the WVU gymnast said on March 26, after it was announced the Mountaineers would be competing in the University Park (Pa.) Regional, just one step away from making the NCAA national championships.
It is one huge step, though. Sort of like going from drivers education to NASCAR.
WVU has made it twice, in 2000 and 2001.
“It’s a hard fight just to get there,” WVU head coach Jason Butts said. “Only six teams have won a national championship, so making the final 12 is like making the Final Four [in basketball.] It’s program defining.
“The biggest names in West Virginia gymnastics are the ones who made it in those back-to-back years.”
Muhammad, a senior from Pennsauken, N.J., qualified last season as an individual all-arounder.
She would love nothing more than to be part of a qualifying team this season.
“That would be incredible,” Muhammad said. “We haven’t made a national appearance in a long time. We were so close last year, which was a big confidence boost for us. I think we’re definitely capable of doing it.”
The University Park Regional will host six teams, with No. 5-ranked Florida serving as the top seed and the favorite.
Also in the region: No. 8 Washington, No. 17 Arizona State, New Hampshire and host Penn State.
Competition begins, at 4 p.m. on April 7. The top two teams from each of the six regions advance to the national championships, along with the top two all-around individuals who do not compete on an advancing team.
WVU led off this season in home matches against Florida and Arizona State.
The Gators defeated WVU, 195.9-194.425 and Arizona State also won, 196.475-195.875.
“They’re all hard regions,” Butts said. “I’m excited about the teams in our draw. I think they’re all teams we can compete with.
“Florida will be the team to beat. Gymnastics has great equalizing properties and that is everybody has to stay up in the air on the equipment and come back down on it. We’ll be looking for an upset.”
The Mountaineers’ regional qualifying score (RQS) of 196.07 is 1.32 points away from Florida’s RQS.
WVU will also enter regionals as the No. 17 team in the country at vault and overall just out of the top 25 nationally.
“When you look at the RQS scores, we’re not that far back,” Butts said. “Florida, we’re probably a good point behind them, but the others we’re probably talking about a few tenths.
“In the game of gymnastics, that’s one mistake and poof, that lead is gone. We barely missed it last year. I told the girls, we only to find a few tenths of a point here or there. They know how close they were last year.”
Muhammad, too, was excited about the regional selection.
“It’s not far from where we are now, which is different from what we’re used to competing in [in the Big 12],” she said. “I feel like a lot of our families can come and it’s going to be a warm atmosphere for us. That could be a big advantage for us.”