For the past two weeks, my status has been Negligent Writer. I had attended the February 13 tri-meet that ended in a sound Arkansas victory over rivals ("rivals") Southeast Illinois State and Missouri State. The honest truth was that those squads were so outmatched that there was not actually much to report, other than "WE WON!" Last week, the then fourteenth ranked Gym'Backs traveled to Lexington to face off against then twenty-fourth ranked Kentucky Wildcats.
Given that Arkansas Fight did not see fit to send me the Bluegrass State (ahem, EDITOR), I streamed the meet from the legendary South Park Truck Stop restaurant in glorious CLARKSVEGAS (Clarksville, Arkansas to anyone who did not graduate from the University of the Ozarks). What I made out through the constant buffering was that the beam bested the ‘Backs, in what was otherwise another outmatched team taking on Arkansas. I was apprehensive as I sat on my sofa tonight, too afraid of potential ice to make my way back to Barnhill where the seventeenth-ranked ‘Backs decked out in pink to Flip for the Cure against the twenty-third ranked Missouri Tigers.
I NEEDEDN'T HAVE FRETTED SO. The Arkansas Gym'Backs woo pig'd and sooie'd all night to send the Tigers back to Columbia, presumably to resume lives akin to Cletus Spuckler.
The ‘Backs opened the evening on vault. Coach Mark Cook and his staff have developed a formidable squad that routinely nails this event. Tonight underscored the power and athleticism that makes the ‘Backs fierce, as team leader Amanda Wellick anchored Arkansas with a 9.925, buttressed by freshman standout Paige Zaziski's 9.9 that helped place the team firmly over Mizzou's mediocre bar routines at the end of the first rotation. The ladies held that lead as junior Erin Freier graced her team with a gorgeous, lean uneven bars event that pulled a 9.9 from the judge's table. I love watching Freier - a Viking of a gymnast in a sport where diminutive stature is generally an asset. I have often thought that judges underscore Freier because her height is sometimes a disadvantage in connections and tumbling passes - but not tonight. <blockquote class="twitter-tweet" lang="en"><p>Tonight is a career best for Erin on bars. I'm so ecstatic for this kid!! <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/Arkansas?src=hash">#Arkansas</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/Gymbacks?src=hash">#Gymbacks</a></p>— Darkest Marshmallow (@MickiNickHarp) <a href="https://twitter.com/MickiNickHarp/status/571483920677646336">February 28, 2015</a></blockquote> <script async src="//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script>
Well done, Miss Freier! Well done, indeed!
The cherry on the sundae came from Zaziski as she punctuated the event with her own 9.925 that sealed her award for the Individual Uneven Bars recognition. At the half, Arkansas totaled 98.400 over Mizzou's 97.75 that was garnered after a series of sloppy Tiger vaults. WOOT!
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The balance beam has plagued Arkansas all season. I have covered the ‘Backs since 2012; this has always been a sticky spot for Coach Cook's teams. This year, however, is especially frustrating because there is SO. MUCH. POTENTIAL. FOR. GREATNESS. Keara Glover rides the biggest #StruggleTrain in this event, psyching herself out even as she completes series and connections that would be impossible for lesser talent. She is hardly the only back with this problem, however; last week's disaster at Kentucky is a testament to how bad it can be. This week was better, but far from where the ‘Backs should be. Freier pulled a great personal victory with a 9.8 that led her squad as Glover and Wellick fumbled their routines, and no one else breaking the 9.8 ceiling. Mizzou obliged Arkansas with fun but unchallenging floor routines that did not earn particularly high marks. Nevertheless, the Death Stick sliced away at Arkansas' lead. Moving into the fourth rotation, the ‘Backs led by a paltry .25.
Fortunately, no one has more fun on the floor than the Arkansas Gym'Backs. Conditioning and artistry combine in a team that is overflowing with the kinds of personality that, at its best, makes gymnastics so much fun to watch. Senior Stephani Canizaro-in the role of Quietest MVP-offers so much agility and grace alongside sheer drama.
<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" lang="en"><p>Stephani Canizaro is one of my favorite performers on the floor. She understands the artistry better, perhaps, than any other <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/Gymback?src=hash">#Gymback</a>.</p>— Darkest Marshmallow (@MickiNickHarp) <a href="https://twitter.com/MickiNickHarp/status/571495813370781696">February 28, 2015</a></blockquote> <script async src="//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script>
Canizaro's 9.875 began the boost that handed the ‘Backs their victory. Bolstered by floor exercises from reliably delightful junior Heather Elswick, firecracker sophomore Samantha Nelson, and Wellick who found redemption in her floor passes, Arkansas defeated Missouri by a slim 195.875 to 195.275.
Next week, Arkansas travels to Athens to challenge the ninth-ranked Georgia Bulldogs. Dawg fans are rabid (HAR!). Real talk: the Gym'Backs MUST overcome the mental hurdles that are murdering them on the balance beam. This is a team that nails it on three-quarters of their events. Neither Mizzou nor Kentucky was, or is, better than Arkansas. They are not more graceful; agile; powerful; athletic; or talented. My comments might seem tacky and plain wrong, given last week's meet and tonight's scrappy triumph. This is not sheer bias, however-Arkansas' skill on vault, floor and uneven bars are among the most formidable in the nation. The ‘Backs greatest nemesis is themselves. On the balance beam. I don't know how Coach Cook and Co. will address this persistent bugaboo going forward.
What I do know is that I am immensely proud of the grit in these Gym'Backs-moxie that I hope makes the Dawgs put their tails between their legs. #NEVERYIELD