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Gymnastics fast-forwarding rebuilding process with late-season surge

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Kentucky captured six consecutive victories to close out Tim Garrison's first regular season as head coach. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics) Kentucky captured six consecutive victories to close out Tim Garrison's first regular season as head coach. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
The University of Kentucky gymnastics team was in a state of rebuilding. A new head coach, Tim Garrison, had been hired after a successful assistant coaching tenure at Nebraska. The Wildcats were looking to turn a new page in the story of its gymnastics program.

They just did not think they would get to the good part so early in the book.

With some familiar faces mixed in with a new cast of characters, in just one season, Kentucky has seen a program turnaround much quicker than they expected with fascinating sub plots based all around one underlying theme: Winning.

On the road in their season finale this past weekend, the No. 23 Wildcats went down to Centenary in Shreveport, La., and defeated the Ladies in every event including, tying a season-best team score on vault with a 49.125, as they went on to claim their sixth straight victory.

"(Saturday) was another step forward for the Kentucky gymnastics program," said Garrison, "We didn't set a record team score or even a season high. What we did was, once again, show consistency in our performance. We hit 24 of 24 routines and that has been our goal all season."

It took awhile to get this team to that point. 

When Garrison was named head coach after the conclusion of last season, he decided that he needed to change two things. The first was the team's fitness. In order to be successful, the Wildcats' fitness level had to improve in order to have a better overall appearance due to the subjective nature of the sport, but also to prevent injury. The second thing he wanted to change, after talking to assistant coach Chuck Dickerson before the season, was this team's attitude.

"After meets they would apologize to (the staff)," said Garrison. "They would feel like that had something to apologize for. I don't like that. I don't think that's a positive thing. I want them to leave a competition, if they don't do well, I want them to be mad. I want them to have a sick feeling, that, 'Dang it, we left it out there on the floor.' Not apologize and say, 'Sorry, Coach, we let you down.' No, no, be mad, be upset."

That trend seemed to continue early on in the season for this bunch. They dropped five of their first six competitions, with all five of those losses coming in conference. To their defense, all five of those teams are perennial forces on the national scene, but at times, they did not even seem competitive. They were dealing with a brand new program and were competing with a few walk-ons.

In their first competition, UK met their conflict head on at Arkansas as the Razorbacks dominated, 196.650-191.975. 

"After Arkansas," said Garrison, "I felt like I was kind of pushing a rope. I thought as a staff we needed to do something to make them understand that that wasn't going to happen. That can't happen."

Garrison called the loss an early season "setback," one of two important setbacks for UK this season. The second came in a loss at Georgia.

Kentucky did not perform particularly well, losing 197.225-193.125 with Georgia reeling off a ridiculous score. However, in the face of that setback, this group pulled together to decide they had finally had enough. The feeling was different. While this story could have taken a turn for the worst, it was just reaching its climax.

"I think it was the turning point," said Garrison. "I think setbacks are great teachers. And it's always been that way and it will always be that way. They bring things into focus, and a lot of times it's negative things. Well, we had two setbacks that are significant this season.

"After Georgia, all they needed was a nudge. That was it. Here's what just happened: you're mad, you're disgusted with yourself, because you know that you left a lot on the floor that you know you could have corrected. And it's been a turning point."

The players agree.

Do-it-all freshman Alexis Gross, who came in second Saturday to teammate Audrey Harrison in all-around competition posting a score of 38.875, has emerged as a vocal presence this year. The outspoken rookie noticed that even though her team did not perform to their best abilities in Georgia, there was no quit in this team.

"Everyone fought over and over again," said Gross. "No one gave up. We started on bars and it was rough, but each event we would fight to come back. Things would not go our way, but no one would give up. And at the end of the meet, we all looked around and were like, 'We're a better team than what we just did.' "

And they have proven it since.

The seniors (Storey Morris and Whitney Rose) have led the way, the freshmen have weaved themselves into the fiber of the team and those walk-ons are performing at a high level.

After Georgia, Kentucky (7-5, 1-5) has gone on to win six consecutive meets, including Saturday's win over Centenary. Their recent surge has seen UK compile team scores of 195 of higher in five of their last six meets, including a 195.875 or higher in three straight meets for the first time in school history. Kentucky scored a 195.95 two weeks ago at Illinois before last week's historic 196.025 against Ball State and George Washington, which was good for Kentucky's best consecutive scores ever. 

Gross, who says she's been afforded the opportunity to step up and be a leader on this team with just two seniors, loves the way this team competes for each other. She says that is why UK has pulled things together.

"The team, you know, everyone is so into each other," said Gross. "When (Caitlyn Ciokajlo) sticks a dismount, I feel like I stuck a dismount, that's how into the meet I am. And they fact that we've all become like that has just fueled our fire."

This season, this story, is unfinished. After completing their regular season, they will head to Duluth, Ga., to compete in SEC Championships this Saturday. And while the team is focused on success this weekend, the authors of the book are still looking to come up with a storybook ending. 

"Obviously Nationals is what we want to do," said Gross. "If we keep rolling, I have so much confidence in this team, I think we could actually do it. And I'm pretty sure that would be the first time, so that would be really awesome."

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