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Arkansas Gymbacks Working Out Kinks against Oklahoma

Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep

See what I did there?  If you do not see, it is because you are a Philistine who needs to get familiar with the catalog of one of rock's most fun acts.  Onward!

Last night, the no. 13-ranked Arkansas Razorbacks gymnastics team, (affectionately called the "Gymbacks") opened their season against the no. 2-ranked Oklahoma Sooners in Norman.  I was not present-instead, I watched the goings-on from my sofa, somewhere in Arkansas, to kick off the season where I write about gymnastics with great zeal.  And I sympathized with my beloved tumbling team that was a few hours away from Fayetteville.

Road meets, like road games or matches in any other sport, are generally tougher for gymnastics squads because of distance, home-mat disadvantage, and so forth.  Plus, the added pressure of starting the year against the NCAA co-champions put a bit of a chip on the Gymbacks whose 2014-2015 roster is missing the dynamism of graduates Katherine Grable and Bailee Zumwalde.  The ‘Backs ultimately fell to the Sooners, 194.900 to 197.625-a score that constitutes a sound loss in a sport where tenths of a point are given or taken away based on objectively subjective criteria.  Still, the Gymbacks' performance showed that while there is (ample) room for improvement in some aspects, there are also plenty of reasons for Arkansas gymnastics fans to be excited about this year and a crop of talented newbies.

Arkansas struggled in the first rotation on uneven bars, an event where returning sophomore Amanda Wellick fell and assorted Gymbacks missed critical fundamentals like handstands.  It was a disappointing 48.450 start for this squad and must have been for Coach Mark Cook as well, as uneven bars are an event that the ‘Backs were battling last year.  What is new is breakout-star, freshman Paige Zaziski.  The Michigan native rocked her bar routine with a 9.9.  Here was my response in real-time:

That's a high compliment, kiddo.  Make me keep them coming!

In the second rotation on vault, however, the Gymbacks shined.  Fierce athleticism in this exercise is an Arkansas signature, and junior Heather Elswick led the band with a clean, strong 9.85 that was followed by Wellick reminding us all that she was the defending SEC Gymnast of 2014, with a matching 9.85.  Vault also gave Arkansas fans a wonderful debut from returning sophomore Samantha Nelson that landed a 9.825, and an impressive turnout from Kid Zaziski (I'm making this a thing) whose powerful and definitive rotation garnered a 9.9 from judges who were overwhelmingly mesmerized by the Sooner fever in Norman, where Oklahoma led with a 98.800 at the half.

For the third rotation, the Gymbacks took to the floor-the other event that is a traditional Arkansas strong suit.  Technically challenging and prettily choreographed routines define ‘Backs' performance and since I have been covering this sport, I have commonly remarked that the coaching staff enjoys squads that SMIZE. I tweeted this last night about Heather Elswick's performance:

Carnevale is AMAZING!

The judges loved it, too, because she came up with a 9.8.  Wellick bested that score in a dramatic flourish with her own 9.875, and reliable floor-great Nelson matched her fellow sophomore's score.  (I do miss Nelson's passes set to the Dropkick Murphys.  MOAR PUNK, NELSON.)  The biggest disappointment of the floor was junior Syndie Dillard, and it was no fault of her own.  A fun, clean routine that failed to crack a 9.8 must have gone unnoticed by a team of judges that, if they sounded anything like the FOX Southwest commentators, must have been angling for brownie points with the Sooner faithful.

Nevertheless, the ‘Backs were outmatched in Norman, all night long.  And on beam, it showed most of all.  I, historically, hate the beam.  A four-inch plank of misery, one teensy bobble can end it all for even Nastia Lukin-types.  And the Gymbacks bobbled.  Junior Erin Freier, a lanky gazelle of a woman, fell off the apparatus and crushed what had been some beautiful element work.  The same problem plagued meet-standout Kid ZaziskiTM, and fellow freshman Leah MacMoyle turned in a performance that was just groovy until she stepped wide on that landing.  Still, junior Keara Glover and Wellick handed the ‘Backs some beautiful routines that each garnered a 9.80.  It was especially nice to see Glover, the 5'9" wonder, back in action after being largely absent from last season.

Coach Cook, candid as always, noted that the Gymbacks had "some good routines and some not-so-good routines" in their first meet of the season.  That is accurate.  As a fan and the woman tweeting/covering/coveting a Gymback spot for my one-year-old daughter, I cannot wait to see improvement on some fundamental elements.  That is always irritating to watch as a sports fan, knowing that minute basics are the difference between bowl games or elite rankings.  And returning sophomores, juniors and seniors need to step into leadership roles that will infuse more confidence into this squad.  Still-this is a talented group of ladies who now include stellar freshman-all of whom will only get better as they grow together.  I am as excited for this season as I was to see these lunatics return:

It's a CIA front!!!

Next week, the Gymbacks face the Crimson Tide in Barnhill Arena.  I will be there.  You better be.