Twenty-Eight Days Later….
HOME AT LAST IN FRONT OF 4,248 FANS. After three grueling weeks on the road, hard losses to seventh-ranked LSU and second-ranked Florida where sophomore standout Leah MacMoyle sustained a foot injury (help up, buttercup!), and a misery shellacking of the hapless Maryland Terps, the Voodoo Queens of Barnhill roared back to a soul-destroying victory over twenty-fourth ranked Kentucky. Tonight’s team score of 197.225 tied the young program’s historical best.
After the meet, I asked junior Gymback and all-around winner, Amanda Wellick, if last year’s frustrating loss to a terrible Kentucky squad was in her mind during training. Adorably, she claimed to have forgotten last year’s disappointing loss. Approximately ten seconds later, she giggled about "kicking their butts." Wellick, like The North, remembers.
I will not even discuss Kentucky tonight. Bless their hearts, they were not on Arkansas' level and were here to justify that this was technically a meet and not an exhibition for the most solid Gymbacks squad that Coach Mark Cook has put together in the four years I have been covering the team. There is a focused joy among this year’s ‘Backs that screams "WE LOVE GYMNASTICS!" with every toe point and every front punch.
After a decent start on vault that garnered a respectable team 49.000 to Kentucky’s equally respectable 49.175 at uneven bars, the Gymbacks unleashed the tusks to reveal a SPECTACULARLY improved uneven bars rotation that featured three—THREE. TRÉS. TROI. DREI.—9.925 scores for sophomore Paige Zaziski (LE POOGE), sophomore Braie Speed (winning, leg brace or no), and senior Erin Freir who gives hope to every aspiring gymnast taller than 5’5. Perfectly executed fundamentals from handstands to Soviet-perfect toe points, to high-flying releases and stuck Arabian landings were performed for the delight of every Razorback who knows where the best show in town is on a winter Friday night. At the half, the ‘Backs led the Cats with a resounding 98.550 to 98.150.
Reader, this team is so squared away that Arkansas is ranked eighth, nationally, on the balance beam.
The Death Stick. The Devil’s Playground. Where Hope and Dreams Go to Die. The ‘Backs, under the watchful and nurturing gaze of assistant coach Samantha Snider (an assistant who exudes a firm, but caring warmth toward her team that was painfully missing in other assistants), are so formidable on this exercise that I forgot to pray before senior Sydnie Dillard ascended for the first routine. By the time the lineup finished, Arkansas had picked up two more 9.9s for Wellick and Nelson, while Coach Cook treated the fans by adding solid sophomore Mia Bargiacchi to the rotation. In her career debut, Bargiacchi earned a 9.8. Though she be young, she be fierce!
With a 147.875 team score that smoked the Wildcats’ own 147.275, Arkansas headed to the floor to put the cherry atop of a delicious, magically-calorie free sundae. Post-meet, Coach Cook revealed that senior and floor vixen Heather Elswick recently underwent successful wrist surgery that ensured her return for a red-shirt fifth-year season. HUZZAH! In her absence, the ‘Backs have had to step in where her shadow looms. And it has been an effort to make a teammate proud.
Senior Stephani Canizaro ratcheted her inner Juliet to land a dramatic, beautiful 9.9 of a floor exercise. Not to be outdone, Nelson powered her way to a 9.9 and baby-fresh Minnesota kid, Makenzie Anderson made a career debut. And then…Wellick. I asked her later if she knows that she makes a particular face just before she tackles her final floor pass. I have seen her make the face before; it is the face of an athlete who knows she is about to lay waste to rabble. She laughed and did not think my question was weird. Wellick knew she was about to bring home a 9.95 for a hellacious floor exercise that helped the ‘Backs earn their historic night at home, and in front of thousands of calling the Hogs. Wellick is the Khaleesi of an entire team of dragons.
Next week, this squad leaves home again for Columbia, Missouri. I hate sixteenth-ranked Mizzou and am considering making the relatively brief, four-hour jaunt to watch the Gymbacks gore the Tigers. Along with assistant coaches Samantha and Ryan Snider, and Jamie (Pisani) Armbrust, Coach Mark Cook has the pot at a rolling boil that is set for the Super Six. You really can come home again.