In the fall of 1982, when Dick Filbert was hired as a part-time coach of the Towson State women's gymnastics team, he promptly canceled the schedule to work with the five gymnasts and to start recruiting.
Now, 8 1/2 years later, Towson State is among the country's top teams, joining the ranks of nationally recognized programs that form an inner circle in the sport.
Last weekend, the Tigers traveled to Tucson, Ariz., and Albuquerque, N.M., for competition involving Arizona, Denver and New Mexico. On Feb. 22, Kentucky comes to the Towson Center -- returning the favor of Towson's trip to Lexington, Ky., last season. Next season, Penn State begins a home-and-home series with Towson.
Meanwhile, Filbert has received calls from Minnesota, Brigham Young and Cal State-Fullerton about meets with his team.
That's what finishing ninth in the national championships will do for you.
Starting quickly -- Towson had a winning record and put two gymnasts in the regional championships the season after its schedule was canceled -- Filbert built a Division II power. The Tigers reached the national championships three years later, the school's final season at that level. Last season, backed by four successive Eastern titles in Division I, the Tigers were one of 12 teams to qualify for the Division I national championships, coming in ninth.
"They are obviously nationally competitive," Arizona coach Jim Gault said. "They surprised the collegiate world last year, and everybody was impressed with their showing."
Penn State coach Judi Avener said: "We are delighted to have another strong team in this area. They seem to have come along very fast, because I had not paid attention to them before."
The rapid success even has surprised those at Towson State.
"This program has exceeded our expectations," said Nance Reed, Towson State assistant athletic director. "Two years ago, we were hopeful of 30th in the country and we finished 19th. Last year, we talked about 20th and we finished ninth. Obviously, we are very happy with these results."
Some of that credit goes to Bill Hunter, the athletic director, who threw his support behind the program several years ago -- a time when its direction was in doubt.
In making the move to Division I, the athletic department had to choose its scholarship sports and decide on the measure of support. Hunter was firm in making women's gymnastics a priority.
Filbert and assistants Lynda LaMonica and Mark Weber have repaid Hunter for that decision.
It has been quite a road Filbert has traveled since he closed his gymnastics club in Howard County and accepted the Towson State position. A graduate of Milford Mill High School and Towson State (1971), Filbert was a Howard County elementary school teacher and coached gymnastics at Glenelg High School for seven years before moving up to the college level.
All three coaches have extensive club backgrounds in the sport and have developed an outstanding rapport with some of the top clubs in the country as a part of their recruiting network. Qualifying for the NCAAs meant team exposure, and one of the byproducts was a half-page action picture of Towson State's Wendy Weaver in a national gymnastics magazine.
Filbert has nine gymnasts -- three seniors, two juniors, three sophomores and a freshman.
"Two weeks ago, I didn't think we were as strong a team as last year, but I knew we had some super talent," Filbert said. "In the West Virginia meet, they went beyond what might have been expected."
The Tigers opened this season with a 185.45-185.05 victory over West Virginia, amassing a total reached for the first time in school history just two seasons ago. "We've been banged up, and I didn't know what to expect," Filbert said at the time. "To score that high was quite an achievement."
Last weekend, Towson State scored 184.95 in placing behind Arizona's 191.10 and Denver's 195.20, but the Tigers rebounded to defeat New Mexico with a season-high 186.55. The Lobos had 173.65.
Towson State (2-2) will join the University of Maryland at the Naval Academy tomorrow at 2 p.m. for the fourth state championship meet. The Tigers won the previous three, posting a then-school-record 186.90 last year.
Until recently, the team had 10 gymnasts, but a shoulder injury sidelined junior Wendy Weaver for the year. She holds practically every school record and finished 19th in the all-around at last year's nationals.
The 10 represent six states -- New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Florida and Maryland.
Senior Carri Scott arrived from Pinellas Park, Fla., and, a year later, Julie Heilman came from Parkland, Fla. Both were Class 1 gymnasts for their clubs in Florida.
"Dick made the contact with me, I came for a visit and I liked it," Scott said. "The program had been improving, and I liked the idea of being able to grow with a program instead of stepping into the [Southeastern Conference].
"My senior year in high school, Towson qualified for the regionals at Florida, and I had a chance to see the team and the coach in a competitive atmosphere, and I liked what I saw."
Filbert said junior Leslie Robinson, one of the tallest gymnasts in the country at 5 feet 8, and sophomore Gabby Linarducci have stepped up to a higher level from past performances.
Robinson was a bars performer last year, but has improved dramatically in vault and beam. Linarducci, a walk-on last season, took a year to adjust academically and athletically, but now is highly motivated in both. She won the all-around against West Virginia, the first time she had entered all the disciplines.
As for the future, the Tigers have an early signing. Joanie Reitz of Levittown, Pa., could have gone anywhere, and narrowed her choices to Utah, the defending national champion and No. 1 team in the country, and Towson State.
Now, that's national recognition.
High marks in classroom, too
The Towson State women's gymnastics team excels in the classroom as well as in the athletic arena. For the fall semester, TC all 10 team members earned grade-point averages above 3.0 on a 4.0 scale, with a team average of 3.4.
A year ago, Towson State placed seventh in competition for the President's Award, presented by the national women's collegiate gymnastics coaches to the program with the highest average for the year. Vermont won with 3.29 to Towson State's 3.17.
Four members of the current team -- Anne Sugden, Carri Scott, Wendy Weaver and Julie Heilman -- were named All-American scholar-athletes by the coaches' group last year.
"Our program goals are academic and athletic," Towson State coach Dick Filbert said. "We have established winning the President's Award as one of our goals for the season."
Filbert also said there is a connection between good athletes and good students.
"They rub off on each other," he said. "An athlete sees someone better, and she aspires to challenge that person. A student sees a teammate doing well in the classroom, and that produces another challenge."