For only the third time in program history, THE ARKANSAS GYMBACKS FELLED THE CRIMSON TIDE.
Alabama rolled into Barnhill Arena on Friday night at a peachy no. 6 in the NCAA rankings to take on the twelfth-ranked Arkansas Gymbacks on their home turf. I honestly had no idea what to expect. After a disappointing season opener against the second-ranked Oklahoma Sooners in Norman, the Gymbacks seemed like they were still working out some significant kinks on bars and beam, and struggling to find their swagger. Home-mat advantage seemed to imbue the ‘Backs, from the second the emcee introduced the squad to a stellar crowd. The team was clearly in its element and having a great time. WOULD IT BE ENOUGH?
Yes, yes, and YAYUSSS.
The ‘Backs opened the night on vault, where junior Heather Elswick and sophomore Amanda Wellick scored a pair of 9.95s that set the evening ace-high for Arkansas. Assisted by freshman Leah MacMoyle, whose moxie and agility garnered a 9.9, the ‘Backs soared to 49.375 team score over Bama's 48.95, earned from a set of rather "MEH" bar routines. Inversion on the next rotation took the ‘Backs to the bars, and I was terrified. Good-but-not great routines on this event plagued the squad in Norman. This was a much-improved week, with junior Erin Freier offering an elongated beauty of a routine that only took home a 9.8 from the judges' table. Senior Stephani Canizaro sailed through a stunning routine that garnered a too-low 9.875. This bunch of hooey for these two great Gymbacks' performances prompted my question:
ONLY a 9.8, judges? Is there a crack pipe down there?— Misti Nicole Harper (@MickiNickHarp) January 17, 2015
This was especially troublesome as Bama proved a much more formidable foe on vault than bars. So much so that Tuscaloosa's finest began chanting "Roll, Tide, Roll," because Alabama fans have never been anywhere that RTR wasn't Entirely. Appropriate.
And everything seemed to be coming up Bama. Third rotation took Arkansas to the beam, while the Tide set to the floor. Alabama on floor is a thing of absolute ZZZZZZ. For this exercise, head coach Dana Duckworth takes cues from Saban's offense--utterly boring, wholly reliable, scores field goals that come back to bite opponents' proverbial asses. All this as the ‘Backs disintegrated on the Death Stick. Head Coach Mark Cook candidly pointed out that without difficulty on this routine, Arkansas cannot hope to be considered as a top-tier gymnastics program. He is absolutely correct, but the ‘Backs valiantly attempted complicated routines that unfortunately came up short. Poor Keara Glover fell at an Olympian combination that garnered a paltry 8.925 that must have made her heart sink. The side-semi bested freshman Paige Zaziski and Wellick. And beam reliable, junior Sydnie Dillard, also fell to earn just a 9.325. At the end of the third events, Bama seemed secure in a 148.025 over Arkansas' 146.725. In gymnastics...that is a huge lead.
But, then. THEN. FROM THE ASHES.
As Bama imploded on beam, Arkansas took to their floor routines. AND O, WHAT ROUTINES. Post-meet, Elswick and Wellick stated that the team remained motivated despite disaster on their own beam efforts. The "Squeal Line," where the women cheer on each performer, kept them having fun and reminding them of what they said they knew the entire night: "We were gonna beat Bama!"
Elswick opened the final event with a signature exercise, bookended by a wild performance from Wellick that earned the ‘Backs a 9.95--the highest score ever for that event, and that earned the Illinois wunderkind another individual event title that secured her as the meet's All-Around champion. In between were stellar performances from a dramatic Canizaro, a delightful Dillard, and a routine from sophomore Samantha Nelson that was so powerful and decisive, I wondered if she was not transported here from the USSR in 1976.
The Gymbacks battled back, Balboa-style, to cap the night as winners over much-vaunted Alabama. Someone tweeted that Arkansas fans were celebrating like we just won a national football championship. It WAS like that, and it was GLORIOUS. The Arkansas gymnastics program is a young's, but has nevertheless been a contender since its inception. Tonight, the ‘Backs underscored that they have plans for this year. BIG plans. Medal-earning championship plans, and no low tide will get in the Gymbacks' way.