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Gymnastics looking forward despite recent successes

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Audrey Harrison looks to build on her strong start to the 2013 season. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics) Audrey Harrison looks to build on her strong start to the 2013 season. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Kentucky gymnasts are not worried about the past. Nor should they be. After two impressive performances to start the 2013 season, the future is looking mighty bright.

The No. 14-ranked UK gymnastics team is on a historic pace. Kentucky's season opening score of 195.125 at California-Berkeley was the highest season-opening score in program history. The Wildcats took down the No. 13 and No. 19 teams in the country that weekend.

Last weekend, Kentucky did something it had not done since 1999. Facing Southeastern Conference foe Auburn for the second consecutive weekend, UK ran its record to 2-0 against the Tigers for the season and picked up their first SEC road win since the 1999 season.

Just two meets in with their third slated for Friday night's Excite Night at the Kentucky Classic and Kentucky is already rewriting program record books.

The athletes are enjoying it every step of the way. Breaking records and snapping streaks are not what the Cats set out for, but when they do, they embrace their success. Typically, however, they simply just go out and take care of business. What happens as a result is all gravy.

"We don't really factor in the history," said junior Kayla Hartley. "Really, we just do what we do. If we keep doing that, we're going to keep breaking more records."

Hartley is one of four juniors, the veterans on a team with no competing seniors and 11 sophomores and freshmen. On the floor, she's been one of the shining stars of the first two meets. She earned a career-high in the floor exercise at Cal-Berkeley with a 9.9. She performed another career-high routine on the uneven bars with a 9.75.

As she and her teammates continue to put up career numbers, the confidence, in both themselves and in one another, continues to grow.

"It's really exciting," said Hartley. "For me personally, just knowing where that hard work is coming from and it's paying off. Just to see the other girls achieve their goals and to see all their hard work during the preseason and in summer and everything to come together has been great."

The career-high numbers were bound to come. Kentucky boasts a youthful team with little experience. Even the juniors, who have spent two seasons competing in college, are finally getting comfortable with performing at an SEC level.

While Kentucky has seen its ranking jump from preseason No. 25 up 11 spots to No. 14, there is still plenty of room for improvement. That may not have been the case for past UK gymnastics teams, but this one is shooting for the stars.

"Even though we've been doing so well, I feel like we can do much better than we have been doing,"  said junior Audrey Harrison. "I'm excited for the rest of the season because I think we'll get even higher scores at every meet."

Harrison has seen that happen so far in each of the first two meets, specifically at Auburn when she earned a 39.2 to win the all-around competition with a 9.775 on the uneven bars, 9.8 on both the vault and balance beam, and a 9.85 on floor exercise.

Last year, in head coach Tim Garrison's first season, the team didn't know what to expect as the athletes and coaches were still working to learn more about each other. Last season, Kentucky hoped to do well. This season, doing well is an expectation.

"We were expecting to do well or even better than what we did because we practice so hard," said Harrison. "We do a lot of pressure sets in the gym so we know we can hit, so we expect to hit at the meets."

Performing under pressure was particularly hard last season considering UK's youth. Still a young team this season, the Cats have much more experience under their belts.

That experience, particularly considering schedule that Kentucky faces going up against the elite teams the SEC has to offer, has helped UK become what it is today. While Garrison and his staff try their best to replicate the pressure and simulate a competitive atmosphere, nothing can match the experience gained by performing where the lights shine the brightest.

"It's the experience of competing in front of the crowds and the fans and all the nerves that come with competing," said Hartley. "We can simulate it in the gym, but once you get out on the main floor, it's still different. Also, experience with knowing that you can do it inside the practice gym and taking it out onto the competition floor as well."

The practice sessions have certainly helped though. Both Hartley and Harrison harped on the fact that this team came into the season more prepared than in any in the past. Summer and preseason workouts with purpose and precision have led to results. But it's also been the competitive nature of the workouts that have brought out the best in one another.

With the depth as great as it's been in the UK gymnastics program in some time, the competitive spirit shows up not only on the day of the meet, but also in the practice gym. With starting lineup spots up for grabs, everyone is giving their best efforts, and it's making the team that much better.

"The competition within each other is developing big time," said Hartley. "I've noticed it this year so much more than any year that I've been here. You can tell that people want the lineup spots this year and we're fighting for them."

As Kentucky continues to progress through the early stages of its 2013 schedule, it will need to continue to build on what they bring each week. Garrison has made it a point of emphasis for his team to be as consistent as possible to pick up some of the tenths of points he thinks his team is leaving out on the floor.

Kentucky has the chance to take down another ranked opponent Friday night when the Cats welcome SEC opponent and No. 9 ranked Arkansas to Lexington, Ky. In seasons past Hartley may have looked at Arkansas and been overwhelmed by her completion. These days the emphasis on Kentucky.

"I just take care of what I need to do," said Hartley. "I don't really pay attention to who I'm competing against. I just do what I need to do and do it for the team and hope for the best."

Kentucky continues to look ahead to where they can go without spending much time on what they've done in the past. Though the Cats need to understand the mistakes they've made in their first two meets, their main focus is on how to correct them in the future. With a great emphasis on consistency, the Wildcats feel like they still have room to grow.

"We just have to keep doing what we're doing and not give away any tenths by sticking landings and tight knees," said Harrison. "Just keep doing that and we'll get better every meet."

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