For the first time in its long and successful, if underfunded, history, William and Mary men's gymnastics had two NCAA All-Americans at last weekend's championship meet. The Tribe came within a bunny hop and a few tenths of a point of having two national champs.
Landon Funiciello was NCAA runnerup on rings, and Neal Coulter was third in the vault. Funiciello, an NCAA All-American as a freshman two years ago, finished one-tenth of a point behind Michael Squires of Oklahoma. Courter, a freshman, was two-tenths behind champ Fred Hartville of Illinois and one-tenth beind Alec Robin of Oklahoma.
"We're competing with giants," longtime coach Cliff Gauthier said. "The neat thing is, sometimes that can happen when everything falls into place."
Gauthier had a tough time coming up with an appropriate analogy, suggesting Florida Gulf Coast making the Sweet 16 in the NCAA hoops tournament as a possibility.
It might be even more remarkable than that for a program that operates on a shoestring budget without athletic scholarships, compared to some of the more well-heeled and traditional powers. Maybe it's the head cook at a family barbecue joint outside Memphis making the finals of "Iron Chef America," or the garage band that rarely strays from Pocatello sharing the stage with Widespread Panic at Mountain Jam in upstate New York. Or Phillip Seymour Hoffman as leading man.
That's the thing: It isn't as if William and Mary came from nowhere. The Tribe has had a respected program for decades under Gauthier. It's had All-Americans, it's even had NCAA champs: Scott McCall in 1996 and Ramon Jackson in 2005. The Tribe routinely places atop something called USA Gymnastics, which is a little like the sport's equivalent of FCS level compared to the Football Bowl Subdivision.
So perhaps W&M's success is like Appalachian State beating Michigan, or James Madison bouncing Virginia Tech — relatively speaking.
The Tribe nearly had a third NCAA All-American, as Daniel Potemski finished 11th in the all-around competition.
"We've had two national championships," Gauthier said, "and we were a heartbeat away from winning two more in one weekend. Neal could have easily won won the vault. Landon could have easily won on rings. But at national meets, everything has to go your way."
Funiciello, healthy again after suffering a badly pulled bicep last year, wasn't a surprise. He finished sixth at the NCAA meet as a freshman. He is one of the strongest and most precise rings performers in the country. He has added value to his competitive routine, boosting his scores a bit. He actually had the highest execution portion of the scoring at the finals, but Squires had a slightly more difficult dismount that he stuck, accounting for the one-tenth of a point difference in the final scoring — 15.775 to 15.675.
Courter, however, was on no one's national radar at the beginning of the season.
"I wouldn't have bet on Neal to do that at the start of the year," Gauthier said. "But about 2/3 of the way through the season, one day everything just clicked. All of a sudden he was popping off vaults I'd say better than anybody in the country. … It's remarkable the way sports work when suddenly everything comes together. In one day, he went from being a nationally very good vaulter to a contender for the national championship."
At the NCAA meet, Gauthier said, Courter wasn't quite at his best, but he was equal to the other competitors. The difference was that on his dismount in the final, he took 2/3 of a baby step and scored 15.275, while Hartville (15.425) and Robin (15.325) performed cleanly and stuck their landings.
All in all, it was a rewarding conclusion to a season that began amid injury and uncertaintly. The Tribe improved and got healthier, individually and collectively.
Performances such as the NCAA and ECAC meets, and the program's national recognition in academics and service have kept Gauthier at William and Mary for 40 years, far longer than he ever imagined.