The Gymbacks opened their season in front of 2,327 fans with a strong 196.700 overall score, a team number better than any they posted at any point last season and shows promise for a strong season, but still came up just a sliver short of SEC powerhouse Georgia's 196.775 score.
The meet featured on the SEC Network, and I was quite excited about the coverage for the team, until I realized that lowly state and local media would be pushed out of the floor media tables and shoved up into the nosebleed sections with inconvenient outlets for our laptops and no complementary Ozarka. Stupid SEC Network (I'll love you when you broadcast Gymback meets on the road, but tonight, stupid). Thus, I began the season covering my beloved ‘Backs mildly annoyed. Turns out, I would end the evening pissed. If there’s one thing I do incredibly well, it’s indignation. Let’s get to it, shall we?
Arkansas entered Barnhill fairly evenly matched with the Georgia squad in national and conference polls. Head Coach Mark Cook also enjoys an embarrassment of riches this year as the team returns five seniors—Stephani Canizaro, Sydnie Dillard, Heather Elswick, Erin Freier, and Keara Glover. The strength of their leadership, plus Arkansas’ national second-place ranking for vault made me really excited for Gym’Back domination as the ladies opened on that event in the first rotation while Georgia took to the uneven bars.
Sophomore Leah McMoyle ("McPoyles! McPoyles EVERYWHERE!!") started the lineup with a solid 9.775, while junior Amanda Wellick offered her team an event high of 9.85. I sorely missed Elswick on vault—arguably her signature event. If she sustained an injury that kept her out of the Cancun Classic and tonight’s opener, I am unaware of it. Erstwhile on uneven bars, Georgia put together a slate of stellar bar work that culminated in junior superstar Brittany Rogers’ 9.90. At the end of the first rotation, Arkansas trailed the ‘Dawgs’ 49.200, with a 48.975.
Buoyant with hope, however, I looked eagerly toward the uneven bars on the second rotation. Going into the evening, Arkansas ranked tenth in the nation in this event while Georgia placed seventeenth in vault. Things seemed like might even out here, especially with the starting punch of Keara Glover and Erin Freier. These two Amazons, in this event, have been two of my favorite women to watch for three years. Glover offered fans a beautiful, strong performance that garnered only a paltry 9.775 from the judges’ table (MORE ON THEIR SHENANIGANS IN A MINUTE), while Freier was rewarded her just desserts with a 9.850.
Canizaro, Speed and Zaziski each delivered 9.875s. Arguably, the most complicated and impressive routine belonged to Wellick, who narrowly saved an Arabian dismount from crashing to the mat. She earned only a 9.600 for her efforts, and since - in gymnastics - each team's lowest score on each rotation is thrown out, Arkansas had to roll with Glover's unfortunately-judged 9.775 because the 9.6 was thrown out. Rats.
Meanwhile, Georgia’s routines at vault belied their relatively mediocre ranking on that event, and senior Brandie Jay took away a 9.950 for her efforts. The ‘Backs continued to trail but had gained significantly on the ‘Dawgs with a 98.225 under their opponent’s 98.575. And we were only halfway finished. "Gonna Fly Now" rang in my head.....
....even though it was time for beam. If you are a follower or a fan or if you’ve ever shared five minutes of conversation with me, you know that I consider the balance beam to be an instrument of Torquemada. Historically, this is Arkansas’ weakest event and coming into tonight they only ranked in at thirty-third in the nation. Here’s the thing though—tonight, the Gymbacks....were really good!
Coach Cook finally has depth and skill on this event in the personages of Dillard, Zaziski, Wellick, Speed, Freier, and Nelson who brought in 9.80 or higher. Bless her heart, though, freshman Sydney McGlone bobbled to a 9.450 (thrown out as Arkansas' low score on beam).
The ‘Dawgs offered only mediocre floor routines (and one performed to DMX, which…just…you’re not grown enough, sweet peas. You can’t, so don’t.) BUT—the ‘Backs were mounting a clear comeback as the gap narrowed to Arkansas, 147.425 and Georgia, 147.675.
Final rotation featured the ‘Backs on floor where Nelson’s high-octane passes earned a 9.875 and Wellick won the floor event with a 9.90. Despite Elswick’s notable absence from another event where she is a superstar, the Gymbacks’ energy on this event was palpable, and McGlone felt it, too, as SHE GOT SCHWIFTY with her routine.
It was seriously good, redemptive gymnastics for the kid from Dublin, Ohio—especially as Georgia’s Gracie Cherrey tumbled off the beam to a 9.225. Except the judges scored the freshman on the underdog team a big ol' 9.7....
...because McGlone stepped out of bounds, and as the Gymbacks' low floor score, it was thrown out.
Arkansas needed a clutch performance from Amanda Wellick to close the show, and she totally delivered with a 9.9, and also needed Georgia to make a mistake. That didn't happen. Canadian olympian Brittany Rogers earned a near-flawless 9.9 on her beam routine after McGlone’s routine. Despite much more impressive scores from Arkansas than we saw last year, the Gymbacks were just .075 points away from the upset victory.
Nevertheless, I’m excited. This was the best home opener score in the 13-year history of Arkansas gymnastics. The Gymbacks beat Georgia on three of four apparatuses. Coach Cook, along with Samantha Snider and Jaime Armbrust, have the senior-ship in the gym and a bustle of new talent to make this season really special, idiot judges be damned. The ladies will be back in Barnhill on Sunday afternoon to take on the Joad family of Oklahoma. Come watch them send the Sooners packing. #GoBacksGo