Kentucky gymnastics head coach Tim Garrison has now had time to appreciate and let his first season leading his program sink in. It was an important one, as all inaugural seasons are. He looked to set a tone and a base for what he wanted his program to become.
He started with the training regimen of his athletes, including how they practiced, conditioned and ate. The changes in the structure but also the philosophy paid dividends.
Under Garrison, his gymnasts helped Kentucky reach new heights. For the first time in school history, Kentucky posted three consecutive scores of 195.875 or above. It was the Wildcats' best three-meet stretch in program history. And Garrison became the first Kentucky head coach in program history to lead his team to a top-25 ranking in his first season.
Kentucky finished as the No. 25 team in the country last season. That's where they'll begin the 2012-13 season.
The gymnastics team will hold its first meet in Memorial Coliseum as it hosts the Blue/White Meet this Thursday at 6 p.m. After holding the first intra-squad scrimmage at the team's practice facility Nov. 16, Garrison likes the way his team competed.
He's looking for that same type of competitive spirit when they hit the Memorial Coliseum floor in front of an actual crowd Thursday night.
"We've done a really good job of preparing to this point," said Garrison. "Now it's just about getting out there and competing and showing it, getting in front of a crowd in a competitive venue, our home venue on hard surfaces and see what they do. It will be an interesting wrinkle on it this time going in Memorial for the first time."
But above and beyond being competitive, Garrison is looking to build on last season's experience and creating a higher level of consistency, an area Garrison feels can be a strength for his team.
"I fully expect them to be consistent this year," said Garrison. "I'm hoping that, beyond anything, is our strength: the consistency of how we perform. We might not be a 9.9 every event, every time, but I'm expecting that we're consistent with what we do."
For most teams, leaders are in charge of creating that competitive atmosphere and keeping everyone consistent. Those are two attributes that most, if not all, coaches preach to their teams. The head coach and his staff can only preach it so much, so it's up the athletes to perform, carry out the plan and lead one another.
The burden of those duties is often left to the seniors and upperclassmen, but Kentucky was a very young team last year in Garrison's initial season. The leadership came from within and the Cats found their way despite the youth at key positions in their lineup. Their experience and leadership took a hit as they began to prepare for their second season under Garrison's tutelage.
In August, rising senior Caitlyn Ciokajlo suffered an injury in workouts that would put her in the hospital and eventually end her gymnastics career. Ciokajlo is making an inspiring and triumphant recovery as she continues her road back to health.
The initial shock of the injury, however, was a setback for the team. Now the team is trying to move on without one of its fiercest competitors.
"We've had some time to heal," said Garrison. "That's important, I think. The closer to the season that happens the more of a shock it is and the less time you have to compensate for it.
"I don't think we'll ever be able to compensate for her completely because she was such a strong competitor, on bars especially, and is such a force in the gym. She is still around the gym. She's still a part of the training. She's there in person, which I think is a help."
As she continues her school at the University of Kentucky, she's also decided to maintain and involvement with her team to help the Cats cope with losing their teammate and senior leader.
"She's taken an active role in conditioning some athletes," said Garrison. "She's helping us with some video work. And then, you know, we'll ask her opinion every now and then on certain things."
With Ciokajlo sidelined, Garrison and his team will turn to the four juniors on the roster to help lead the way. That should be no problem, however, as they are already veterans in their own right. As part of last season's youth movement, those sophomores-turned-juniors saw plenty of action in competition.
Garrison has no problem leaning on his junior class to take a hold of leadership responsibilities.
"They bring a lot to the table," said Garrison. "They've had two years of competitive experience and because the team was so young last year, they got a lot of experience competing last year. So I would say they're seasoned. I'm expecting a lot from them in the leadership role this year."
With a roster full of 10 freshmen and sophomores, Kentucky will be young once again. But after getting to spend his first full offseason with his team since taking over the program, Garrison now fully knows what to expect from his team, as do his athletes of him and his staff.
The offseason was a great learning experience for both the staff and the athletes, and now Garrison feels like he has this thing going in the right direction and it's time for this team to take the next step in the Southeastern Conference.
"I'm very proud of what this team did last year, but that was just a baby step," said Garrison. "It's trying to level off. That's what we're trying to do. Let's get some consistency and then this year, we're trying to take a bigger step."
In order for that to happen, this team will need to continue to build and already strong team chemistry that seems to be growing each day in practice. It's a group of wide-ranging personalities that all fit in perfectly with Garrison's plan. If the chemistry is truly as strong as Garrison believes it to be, that could be plenty to help Kentucky reach the levels of competition and consistency that the Cats are seeking.
However they hope to be successful this season, the Cats expect it's going to take a full team effort to help them reach their goals.
"There's all different mentalities on the team," said Garrison. "I think we have people that are just aggressive people that will get up in people's faces and say you've got this. Then we have other people who are passive and lead by example.
"I think it's a total group effort. I really do, because we need all the different personalities to mesh and bring the chemistry it takes to be a competitive team. I really feel we have that."