Above photo courtesy of the UMHB Athletics Department
BELTON- The UMHB Acrobatics and Tumbling program has been in existence for just three years. But it might as well be two.
The 2020 season was cut short by three meets, so 2021 was the first time the Cru competed in a full schedule. Yet, in just that short time, the program has already reached a number of milestones: graduate seniors from the initial recruiting class, go undefeated against fellow D-III opponents, break multiple program records. Each of those goals was realized for head coach Courtney Oates’ team in 2022, as UMHB finished at 3-3.
“Their standard is really high and always has been,” Oates said of her team. “Even when our season was shut down in 2020, they still had their hopes set on a really good leap forward. Every year since that standard continues to be raised and they continue to meet it as we go.”
It is hard for two of those losses to be considered losses at all. They came to Baylor, the nation’s top-ranked team in the March 23 National Collegiate Acrobatics and Tumbling Association (NCATA) Championship Rankings. And yet, UMHB, a program in just its third year of existence, took on the Bears with stellar poise in both meets. In the season opener in Waco, a crowd of 1,191 saw the Crusaders fall by just over 23 points. A month later, UMHB broke four of its program records in another 23-point defeat.
Baylor, partially due to its proximity, as well as Oates’ ties to the program as a former four-year letterwinner, has been a fixture on UMHB’s schedule each season. That allows the Crusaders to literally test themselves against the nation’s best, as the rapid growth of the program continues.
“That was one of our best tumbling meets,” Oates said. “As our program has progressed, we continue to raise our start values. Baylor has their thing going. They’re completely dominant in every event.
“But we’re still trying to gain momentum in specific events. In our acro event, we were able to start from a 10.0 difficulty in each of our three heats just about every meet of the season. That’s right where Baylor was starting. That in itself, with the higher start values and the solid execution, was what solidified some of those school records.”
If top-ranked Baylor is mentioned, it is only fair to add that UMHB’s third loss of the season came to none other than No. 2-ranked Azusa Pacific in Azusa, California. On the road against another perennial power, the Cru held its own, dropping a 276.855-255.930 decision.
“For every group of freshmen that comes in, I always have an underlying expectation. However, it has to be on the athletes to reach whatever standard they are wanting. They wanted to be known as a dominant team and program within the nation. Not just within our division, but overall. Because we do have the exposure to go against some of these different divisions.”
There was a unique element of this season that had never been a part of the program in past years. A senior day took place on the same evening the Cru hosted Baylor, honoring Abby Bonniwell and Caroline Perry, who were part of Oates’ inaugural recruiting class and the first team in 2020.
“They said yes to this program and committed to this program before this program was even here,” Oates said of Bonniwell and Perry. “Their faith to be able to be here and consistently say yes for the next three years with Covid in between is pretty remarkable. Both of them stepped up leadership-wise. In different areas on the mat, they’re both very impactful.”
Seeing how the sport has helped change the lives of those on her team, and also the role it played in her own life as an athlete, Oates is thrilled to see it growing rapidly across NCAA institutions. Next spring, Texas Lutheran’s program will take the mat for its inaugural season, making TLU the fourth acrobatics & tumbling program in the state of Texas. Nationally, the growth has been substantial with a total of 37 programs now competing in the NCATA across 18 different states.
“Thus sport means a lot to me,” Oates said recently. “It is where my heart has been rooted for so long. I think this sport teaches us a lot more than how to do flips on a mat and how to hold each other up on the mat. I think it’s the life lessons that these young women are able to build throughout the four years. It’s been really exciting to see the community be invested in our program as well as our state in general.”
With the 2022 season wrapped up, the focus now shifts to 2023, where once again, the Crusaders will try to do what they have been successful in accomplishing in years past: build on the achievements of last season, and then surpass them.
“Each of our athletes has had to push themselves in areas where they, more or less, have not been perfectly comfortable,” Oates added. “So in order to reap the benefits and see the success of where that pressure can put them is a really cool thing.”