For the fourth season, I have had the privilege to watch the Arkansas Razorbacks gymnastics team—affectionately called the Gymbacks. Tonight, I watched every layout, every bobble, and every wink as the 2014-2015 squad closed out its regular season and celebrated Senior Night against the eight-ranked UCLA Bruins. The California team led the sixteenth-ranked Gymbacks all night and eventually carried away victory.
In the season's earlier moments, I made no secret of my perpetual frustration with the ‘Backs on the balance beam. I have questioned lineup choices and wondered about the confidence and preparedness levels of certain team members. Tonight was different. Arkansas fought as a real contender against a simply superior UCLA squad. While there were times that different choices may have altered the turnout, it was apparent that Coach Mark Cook is preparing to catapult the Gymbacks into the elite ranks. Basically, Coach Cook is Mickey Goldmill.
We're all gonna crap thunder!!!
Arkansas opened the evening on vault, an event for which they rank in twelfth place nationally while UCLA places seventh. Cook has assembled a superior core of five women for this exercise. Junior Heather Elswick, sophomores Amanda Wellick and Samantha Nelson, and freshmen Leah MacMoyle and Paige Zaziski have each put up tremendous numbers off the table this season. Tonight glittered a little less brightly than in other matches, as Nelson and MacMoyle scraped a pair of 9.775s that could not pass muster against a solid slate of Bruins' 9.8—9.925 scores. Nevertheless, the strength and potential of the Gymbacks in this event is evident. With the right recruiting and continued conditioning, this squad may easily break into the elite top 10 for this exercise by next spring.
In the second rotation, the ‘Backs set to the uneven bars where they have ranked in seventeenth place according to national polls. Uncharacteristic slips and balance checks handicapped a lineup that has generally shined in this season's meets. My heart broke for senior Stephani Canizaro, whose bar choreography and innate talent are a thing of beauty to watch; falling off the high bar undermined what could have been a 9.9-plus score. I also questioned the judges' table for junior Keara Glover's and Wellick's respective 9.75 and 9.775 that each seemed low. Still, Coach Cook is working with Elswick to take her place on this exercise as he continues to craft junior Erin Freier into a standout Amazon on the uneven bars. Freshman Zaziski is the squad's future on bars as she set new records in Gymback history with her 9.95 performance that also earned her the individual award for that event. When I asked Zaziski if she knew she was nailing it during her routine, she squeaked, "I'm a perfectionist!" It was kind of like talking to a Care Bear, in the most adorable sense.
Something like this.
At the half, UCLA lead the ‘Backs with a team score of 98.55 to 98.125. Bruin Samantha Peszek locked up the individual vault award with a 9.925 stunner. The third rotation saw Arkansas on the balance beam, and this is easily the place that Coach Cook will be recruiting hardest. Beam is the single event that effectively keeps the ‘Backs from the ranks of the elite collegiate squads. Zaziski, Wellick, and junior Sydnie Dillard are the foundation for this event, and junior Freier is evolving into a reliable staple. This leaves two vacancies that have not been easy fits for current athletes. I firmly believe that multiple ‘Backs—especially Glover—have the talent to be balance beam standouts, but whatever that mental hurdle is needs to die. Like, yesterday. Arkansas' weak showing on beam allowed the Bruins to take the definitive lead with a 147.775 over the ‘Backs 146.600.
The final rotation showcased UCLA's deserved sixth-place status on balance beam, but the Gymbacks gave plenty of face on floor as the twelfth-ranked performers in the country on this event. Zaziski and Nelson picked up a pair of 9.825, while senior Canizaro completely forgot about falling from the uneven bars as she tumbled and winked her way through a glorious routine that garnered a 9.85. Dillard followed suit with her own charming passes, and Wellick's fiercely athletic choreography earned the ‘Backs a 9.875. But the real star of the floor is Heather Elswick, whose big hair and bigger personality make it seem like Mardi Gras out there. The junior leader scored a 9.9 that led her team to finish with a respectable 195.900 to the Bruins' 197.075.
Elswick in her natural habitat, probably.
There is work to do between now and next season. Heck, between now and the SEC Gymnastics Championship in two weeks. This has been a rebuilding year for the ‘Backs in many ways, and it has been the first year that Coach Cook has led a squad as its solo leader since his days at Stanford, back when Paris Hilton was a thing people cared about. There have been falls and frustrations, but there is also a glimmer of sparkly underneath the coal dust. Cook and Co. are building something special here, and I want to be around to see it shimmer next spring.