I came into Barnhill Arena on Friday night, eyes rolling after the blizzard coverage of death certificate madness, but quickly forgot I knew anything about HUNH as the thirteenth-ranked Gym'backs proceeded to dismantled the Kentucky Wildcats with a combination of athleticism, poise, and swagger that heretofore had been missing this season. By evening's end, the kitties in blue sort of resembled Boyd Crowder through most of season two of Justified.
The ‘Backs opened the night on vault with sophomore Heather Elswick at the helm. She landed a decent vault that garnered a 9.725, but when she came away in tears under co-head coach Rene Lyst's arm, my heart sank. A heel injury sat the formidable Elswick out for the evening-no Breathless Mahoney on the floor-but the rest of her team viciously attacked that event, as senior Bailee Zumwalde turned in an uncomplicated but powerful vault, followed by junior Stephani Canizaro's 9.8 effort, senior Scarlett William's front-twist landing stunner that earned a 9.875, freshman Amanda Wellick's beauty of a vault that notched a 9.85, and senior Katherine Grable's complicated stunner that achieved a 9.95 and marked the beginning of an epic overall performance from the Wisconsin Wunderkind.
WHITHER KENTUCKY??? Meh-ing it out on the uneven bars. At the end of the first rotation, Arkansas decisively led the Mildcats with a team score of 49.25 to 48.85. It could not have been any nicer than if Kentucky was actually wearing Kitten Mittens.
Our heroines took to the uneven bars as Kentucky moved to vault for the second rotation. The ‘Backs ranked nineteenth on bars and it has been a perpetual troubled spot for the team all season. Sophomore Erin Frier, whom I have affectionately nicknamed "TreeBeard" because she towers in this sport, began with a pretty routine that did not stick its handstands but offered a lovely layout landing for a 9.725. Canizaro followed TreeBeard and wowed her audience with a release so high, she seemed to hang in the air for several seconds. BOOM, 9.85. Wellick followed and hung on to a backward Arabian landing that earned a 9.825 and ensured that the freshman from Wheaton, Illinois quietly tumbled to the best night of her Gym'Back career under the fanfare for Grable. The senior leader's own uneven bars routine has been a soaring, near-perfect spectacle, and Friday did not disappoint as she sailed to a 9.9.
Credit where it was due-Wildcat Audrey Harrison delivered on a front walkover vault that was creative enough to make me grin as it garnered a 9.825. Teammate Shannon Mitchell mimicked that vault for a 9.9 and the small contingency of ‘Cats fans who traveled from Lexington roused.
It sounded and looked like so.
Nevertheless, at the end of the second rotation, the ladies in red dominated Kentucky with a team average of 98.375 to 98.00.
Third rotation witnessed the ‘Backs in fine form for balance beam while the Cats moved to floor. Arkansas ranks eighth in this event, compared to the Wildcats' own forty-fifth placement. So there's that. Junior Shelby Salmon opened with a beautiful, if slow-paced routine that offered gorgeous connecting elements and a clever twist execution to take a 9.775. Frier followed Salmon with long, lean performance that bobbled significantly on a connecting element to only earn a 9.675. A returning sophomore, TreeBeard has struggled on uneven bars and balance beam more than I expected her to this season. When she is focused and confident, Frier is a phenomenon to watch-hope she figures out how to tackle these problems. Wellick, meanwhile, offered a career best of 9.875 on balance beam. I am officially over calling this event the Death Stick. Sophomore Sydnie Dillard shined with a 9.875 of her own, and tiny New England marvel, freshman Samantha Nelson executed a beautiful double twist landing with absolute assurance for a 9.825. Katherine Grable fell off the beam. HAHAHAHAHA! Kidding. She's better than you or me. Her cool, collected performance stunned Barnhill with a 9.925. I have decided Grable's internal monologue is this:
Yes. So much yes.
BUT WAIT. THERE'S MORE. God love ‘em, the night featured Wildcat gymnasts performing floor exercises to "LOOSEN UP MY BUTTONS" by The Pussycat Dolls. I really wish that would become the official theme of the Kentucky Wildcat gymnastics squad.
By the beginning of the fourth rotation, Kentucky was glaringly outclassed. Arkansas is ranked sixteenth on floor exercise, while Kentucky is but forty-third on beam. The Universe would really have had to hate Arkansas, is what I am saying, Gym'Back Faithful. Which...Razorback fans are familiar with that kind of disaster snatching from victory's jaws. BUT NOT WITH THESE LADIES. Despite Elswick and her reliably fantastic exercise on the sidelines, the ‘Backs owned the night as every competitor's routine garnered a 9.85 or better. Wellick's aggressive tumbling passes and Dillard's elongated and elegant routines made Barnhill roar, and that crowd screamed for the judges to award Grable a perfect 10 for near-flawless routine that did take a 9.95 that allowed her to sweep every individual award, tie assistant coach Jamie Pisani's own all-around Gym'Back record, and dispatch the ‘Cats back to Lexington after falling to Arkansas, 195.975 to 197.100. Glorious.
This is the team I am excited to watch, and the team that I have come to expect after three years of covering Arkansas gymnastics. In the post-meet interview, Grable and Wellick spoke candidly about the night where they each earned unprecedented scores and honors, and discussed that this team has finally found the confidence to couple with unparallel talent. Coach Lyst noted the diligence that has been driving this team since the loss to Auburn at home. As a Gym'Back fan, I could not be prouder of Friday night's performances. The gals are in the groove. Let's burn down sixth-ranked Georgia next week in Athens, shall we?
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