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Gymnastics excited, not satisfied with early-season success

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Kayla Hartley picked up her fourth-career victory on the floor at California-Berkeley. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics) Kayla Hartley picked up her fourth-career victory on the floor at California-Berkeley. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
The No. 25 Kentucky gymnastics team achieved a program-best season-opening score in its meet at California-Berkeley last weekend. Several gymnasts earned career-high scores on the way to a second-place finish, scoring 195.125 while defeating the No. 13 and No. 19 teams in the country.

Head coach Tim Garrison thinks his team has only scratched the surface.

Despite the early success, the meet was far from perfect. Garrison said his team made uncharacteristic, head-scratching mistakes. Mistakes that head he had never seen some of his athletes make before. They even had to count a fault in their final score.

With all of those mishaps, Kentucky still managed to record its highest season-opening score ever to finish second behind Cal, while defeating No. 13 Auburn and No. 19 Arizona.

In all actuality, it was a huge day for the Wildcats as they started off with a bang. Garrison knows it. They're excited about their start with a strong foundation to build from the rest of the way.

"Well, going up against the No. 13 team, the No. 19 team and coming out ahead, that obviously makes us feel good," said Garrison.

He also knows that he and his athletes can't be satisfied. Not with what he witnesses in the practice gym on a daily basis.

Garrison and his staff have since gone back and watched each routine with each gymnast. They have looked at the mistakes to see where they can pick up a few extra tenths in their scores. Those points add up quickly if each athlete can correct one or two small mistakes in their routines.

If those mistakes can be corrected, more record-setting scores could follow.

"We broke down our routines from the meet and we talked about each little mistake that happened," said Garrison. "We watched video with the kids and talked about each little mistake, and the mistakes that we could get back and the tenths we could get back. And we're projecting scores that this program hasn't seen."

Garrison is excited, but it's tempered by a desire to see his team go from a good team to a potentially great one. There are points out there to be had and mistakes to be fixed. That potential is yet to be realized.

"Just seeing how much they've grown to this point and seeing what I see every day in practice," said Garrison. "I see hints of brilliance, but I don't see the finished package yet. I obviously didn't see it last weekend."

How does Garrison hope to get there? He needs to see consistency while his team builds confidence with experience. The head coach can only do so much in the gym, but the athletes will really start to make strides as they gain more competitive experience.

The environment of a meet is not replicable in the practice facility, no matter how hard they try to simulate it. As the season goes on, Garrison expects this team to continue to transform and could have a completely different identity by the end of the season.

That will all stem from experience. It's a young team with no seniors competing this season. They have five freshmen and five sophomores. Competitive experience will be the key ingredient the rest of the way.

"We need experience now," said Garrison. "But we need competitive experience which is not something I can give them until the season starts. That's why we're so happy that we're finally underway."

Despite the team's lack of experience, the first competition of the season showed the strides that this team has made from the end of last season. The offseason training and hard work certainly paid off.

Audrey Harrison, Kayla Hartley, Alexis Gross and Kayla Sienkowski all notched career highs in the opener.

"They had excellent routines," said Garrison. "I think that their confidence has grown because they worked their tails off in the summertime. They worked hard in the preseason, and now it's been validated."

Kentucky didn't have much time to dwell on the performance in California because the Cats had just two days of practice to get ready for a Southeastern Conference meet at Auburn. The Wildcats will take on the Tigers Friday at 8 p.m. ET for the second time in a week. That familiarity, though, means little when it comes to preparing for Friday's meet.

Kentucky is only concerned with itself.

"They're going to do what they do; we can't affect their performance," said Garrison of Auburn. "Do we have confidence going against them? I don't know. But we have confidence in ourselves, which is way more important as far as I'm concerned."

The meet at Auburn will give Kentucky another opportunity to get better against high-level competition. The Wildcats are where Garrison hoped they would be at this point in the season, but his high hopes are based on a projected high ceiling. If everything falls into place, this could be a special season.

"When you get in the gym and you start seeing what kind of athletes you have and what they're capable of, and whether they're coaching or not," said Garrison. "There are a lot of variables to it.

"A lot of it was up in the air. A lot of balls that you had to juggle and put in the right spots, and I think we're close to winning the lottery. I think we're close to the right spot. But there's obviously still a lot of work to do. But we're heading in the right direction, that's for sure."

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