After completing seven meets, the Auburn Gymnastics team is officially half-way through the season. Currently ranked No. 8 in the country, the Auburn Tigers have proven that last year’s success wasn’t just a fluke: the team has power, sass, presentation, and grit. They know what’s it’s like to endure difficulties, move past them, and come back even stronger. Most importantly, this young team knows how to compete against any team in the country.
Over the past couple of weeks, the 2016 team has endured their fair share of trials. While competing at the University of Arkansas, two freshman gymnasts, Emma Engler and A’mirical Phillips, suffered season-ending injuries. Phillips had consistently been in the Vault line-up, while Engler had been in line-ups for Vault, Bars, and Beam. Suddenly, with four routines to replace, the Auburn Tigers had to tweak almost every line-up, and see how the alternates would hold up in competition.
This past weekend while competing in a quad-meet at TWU against the host team, Illinois St., and the then-ranked No. 2 Oklahoma (now currently atop the rankings), Freshman Samantha Cerio, Senior Kait Kluz and RS Junior Kelsey Kopec took over the open slots on each event. All three individuals performed admirably. Kluz scored a 9.8 while Kopec scored a 9.85 in their first vault appearances of the season. Cerio took her newfound role in stride, contributing a 9.775 in the lead-off spot on bars and a 9.8 on beam. Overall, the team scored a 196.825 which was not only their best away score, but also their highest team total of the season so far. They were led by Senior Caitlin Atkinson who scored a 39.575 in the All-Around and a Floor line-up that knocked it out of the park! Auburn scored a 49.475 on floor after having earned 9.925s from Kluz, Atkinson, and Junior MJ Rott.
So, what does all this mean moving forward? First of all, it means that much needed progress has been made. It seems that these young student-athletes have figured out how to calm down in a meet situation, while still having fun and enjoying the moment. Having been a former gymnast for Auburn, I can vouch that the recipe for success relies on the mentality of each athlete, rather than the actual, physical gymnastics. During a meet, the adrenaline rush is intense. There’s nothing like being in an arena, doing one of the most exciting sports in the world, competing with (and for) your teammates. However, it is incredibly easy to lose sight of the best parts of competition. The nerves take over, the crowd can seem too large, and all of a sudden you’re making mistakes you haven’t made in months. Overcoming that side of meet day can be a grueling process. In a sport based off of perfection, it’s hard to not try to be perfect. Unfortunately, the moment you try to force perfection, you end up stepping the wrong way on a dismount or falling off the beam. Given recent performances, it’s appears that this team has learned to settle down, let loose, and compete like they practice.
Secondly, we’ve learned that Auburn has some extreme talent. A 49.475 on floor is no easy feat, and after watching the routines, I honestly think they have the potential to score even higher. Match that notion with the fact that we’ve already seen some high numbers go up on the other events, I think it’s safe to say that the scoring potential for this team is HUGE.
Finally, these recent results point to the fact that Auburn can now hold their own against any team in the nation. Competing against Oklahoma and performing well is a difficult task to handle, especially given that Oklahoma is only two years removed from winning a National Championship. In gymnastics, that’s a big deal, especially since only six schools have won the National Championship…EVER.
This coming Friday, February 12th, gives Auburn the opportunity to once again prove their talent, prowess, and level of ability. Auburn hosts the University of Alabama at 7:30pm in Auburn Arena. Alabama is currently ranked No. 4, meaning that this will be a competitive match-up between top 10 schools and in-state rivals. Auburn hasn’t managed to defeat Alabama in what seems like an eternity. However, this could be the night that Auburn finally breaks the horrible streak that has been haunting members of the gymnastics team for decades.
There are some aspects of this particular Auburn/Alabama rivalry that cannot be overlooked, and these deal with the subjective nature of the sport of gymnastics. The key aspect to remember is that gymnastics tends to be a sport of reputation. By this, I mean that it takes time for a team to prove they are competitive, but once a team becomes known as a winning team, it’s just as difficult to lose that title. In this instance, the University of Alabama has won several SEC and NCAA titles, while Auburn has not. Even if Alabama has a year where they may not be as talented, they will be more likely to earn "the benefit of the doubt" from judges. Likewise, in the past, Auburn has had a history of underperforming in the post-season. It takes time to earn "the benefit of the doubt" from the judges, coaches, and fans of the sport of gymnastics, so in the past, it may have seemed the scores for Auburn were more critical of the athlete’s performances.
This system may seem flawed, but it’s a subjective sport, so it’s to be expected. The positive side is that this subjectivity can add a layer of prestige to the teams that can manage to break into that top tier. It just so happens that Auburn achieved the elusive and exclusive mark of reaching the Super Six last year. By gymnastics standards, Auburn broke into the highest level of teams in the nation and earned more respect from judges, coaches, and fans alike. Because of that success, this Auburn team, currently ranked 8th, not only has the ability to beat top teams, but they are considered a team that is hard to beat. Let me tell you that before Head Coach and reining SEC Coach of the Year Jeff Graba arrived on scene, this was not the case. Because of his and his staff’s efforts, the current Auburn gymnastics team has finally gained a reputation of being consistent, entertaining, and most importantly, competitive.
This Friday, Alabama will come into town and Auburn will have the chance to finally end the streak of losses. As we approach the meet, remember a couple of important notes. 1) It’s the score that matters most. If we beat Alabama with a score of 194, we will not be happy. If we lose (though we don’t want to), but score a 197.4, that will help us much more in terms of rankings and the rest of the season. Wins/Losses matter in terms of pride, but they don’t actually matter in terms of rankings or overall success until the post-season in gymnastics. 2) The meet needs to be FULL OF ENERGY and full of AUBURN FANS. Alabama is bringing buses full of their students and fans and they are trying to get there early. The meet starts at 7:30pm, but doors open at 6pm. Make sure to get to the Arena early and please, for the love of everything Auburn, don’t let Bammers take Auburn seats! It’s time to pack the house for this Auburn gymnastics team. I promise, it will be a night you don’t want to miss. See you there, and War Eagle.