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Gymnastics balancing present, future in Garrison's first season

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Under Tim Garrison, the Wildcats have posted a season-high score of 195.05 in their last two meets ahead of a matchup with No. 1 Alabama. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Under Tim Garrison, the Wildcats have posted a season-high score of 195.05 in their last two meets ahead of a matchup with No. 1 Alabama. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Tim Garrison can't help but look ahead.

In the future, he sees the Kentucky gymnastics program he was chosen to lead in April 2011 consistently attracting the nation's best athletes. He sees UK going routine for routine with the elite in the Southeastern Conference, the nation's premier league.

Nearly 10 months into his tenure, Garrison sees the program moving in the right direction, but he's not forgetting about the small steps it's taking along the way.

"We're laying a foundation, but we haven't written this season off," Garrison said. "We want to continue to get better."

Improving is exactly what the Wildcats have done a month into the 2012 season. UK is fresh off a back-to-back meets in which the Cats posted season-best scores of 195.05, rebounding from a disappointing 191.975 in their first SEC meet against Arkansas.

UK relies on an unusually young roster, using 18 or more routines from freshmen or sophomores in all five meets so far this season, so Garrison has opted to institute a simpler approach to competition. The Wildcats willfully undertake routines with a lower level of difficulty than many of their opponents, focusing on consistent execution.

"I think the higher level of difficulty you have, the less consistent you'll be," Garrison said. "With athletes like we have right now, which are athletes that need to be doing more simplistic routines because they need to be more comfortable with what they're doing."

Garrison is refreshingly forthright in evaluating his team, whether he's talking to a reporter, an assistant coach or an athlete. His honesty lends him credibility when he lays out his expectations. That's crucial, because setting standards and living up to them is at the center of his philosophy for rebuilding this program.

"We're changing the culture, there's no doubt about it, just the expectation level," Garrison said. "We go out there and get a 195, we're not satisfied."

He was characteristically frank with the Wildcats after their effort in Fayetteville, Ark., making it abundantly clear he was unwilling to accept that kind of performance. The way they have responded with progressively higher scores since is encouraging for the rest of this season and beyond.

"We don't come in and get scared," freshman Alexis Gross said. "We went into the first meet scared and he said that's not what we do anymore. Now we expect more of ourselves so the younger generations are going to carry that on so we'll have a fearless team."

Gross is nothing if not fearless. Although just a freshman, the Pasadena, Md., native has stepped in as an all-around performer because she is unfazed no matter the opponent or surroundings, a desirable attribute in the daunting SEC.

"I have no fear to be honest," Gross said. "Obviously I get scared of skills and stuff like that, but when it comes to meet day, I don't think that anyone else is any better than I am even if I know they are."

With No. 2 Alabama coming to Memorial Coliseum to face the Cats on Friday at 7 p.m., that kind of mentality will come in handy.

"The biggest thing I look for in an athlete, especially in this kind of environment, is for them to be unflappable," Garrison said. "Nothing's going to get them out of their comfort zone. Nothing's going to intimidate them. She's that athlete for us. It doesn't matter who's performing, it doesn't matter what performance was just done on the other rotation, she's not going to look at that and say, 'Wow, they are really good. Maybe I'm not so good.' She's going to look at that and say, 'Really? Here I go.'"

In more ways than one, Gross is exactly the kind of athlete Garrison loves coaching. Not only does she steadfastly refuse to accept anything but her best effort, but she also matches her coach in honesty. Because of that, it should come as no surprise that she has already established herself as a vocal presence on the team in spite of her youth.

"I've always been very vocal," Gross said. "I guess I would say I'm pretty blunt, and that's just the way that I am. My club coaches raised me very well to be that way. In the beginning, I was a little timid, but as I saw there was a vocal role that needed to be filled, I filled it. I think the girls trust me too, so that helps."

Both before and during the dual meet with the defending national champion Crimson Tide, Gross will be helping deliver Garrison's message that the Cats are competing with themselves more than anyone else. His goal is to get to the point where UK is on a level playing field with a team like Alabama but for now, he wants to be the one with an eye on Alabama's routines, not his student-athletes.

"If they never look up and see another performance by anybody else on Alabama's team, I'd be happy as I could be," Garrison said. "I look around and I see what's going on because I want to know what's out there. I'm pretty versed on what's out there but I want to see what they're doing and how far we need to go to get to that level."

Garrison is demanding tunnel vision out of his gymnasts because the team's goals are more about scores than wins and losses, at least at this point.

"Even though we're competing with those teams on the floor at the same time, that's not really who we're competing against," Garrison said. "We're competing against teams who are ranked between 16th and 26th, where we are. We want to try to get in the top 18 to qualify for regionals as a three seed. That's really our goal."

The Cats are currently ranked No. 26 with an eye on moving up incrementally in the short term. In the more distant future, Garrison envisions more drastic jumps.

"We have a very clear understanding of where we are," Garrison said. "These guys know where we are. We intend to get better as the weeks go on. But as the years go on, we're going to recruit and we're going to train and we're going to get better."

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