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Gymnastics breaks through 196 barrier, but challenges still lie ahead

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Kentucky gymnastics produced the sixth-best score in program history at Florida notching 196.075 for a season high. (Aaron Borton, UK Athletics) Kentucky gymnastics produced the sixth-best score in program history at Florida, notching 196.075 for a season high. (Aaron Borton, UK Athletics)
Getting over the hump is a difficult task for teams on the cusp of something great. It takes painstaking effort, attention to detail and extreme focus to get to that point when that level of success has eluded a team all season long. Mentally, the challenge is even greater to get over the hump, as the longer it takes, the taller the hump often grows.

It took the Kentucky gymnastics team eight meets, but UK finally reached the summit of said "hump".

The Southeastern Conference acts like a monopoly at times with the amount of talented and elite teams it boasts in many varsity sports in the collegiate ranks. For example, football hasn't lost in the BCS Championship game for the last seven years. Baseball has won three of the last five College World Series. Oh, and an SEC gymnastics team has won seven of the last eight NCAA Championships.

In other words, it's tough to be an up and coming team in a such a dominant league.

It might take awhile for UK gymnastics to rise to the level of its most recent competitor, No. 1 Florida, or two-time defending NCAA champion Alabama. But the Cats are trying, and they are getting closer than they have ever been since the early 1990s, the days of All-American and three-time NCAA All-Around Champion Jenny Hansen.

For those who don't know the sport, it's, well, different. In most cases, a gymnastics team is not competing against the other teams it faces in a meet. Instead, teams perform for themselves and by themselves. Win/loss records are valued, but a greater emphasis is placed on team scores.

UK started off the 2013 season at a record pace, earning its highest score in a season-opening meet in school history. The Cats also earned their first SEC road win in decades. They've set the bar high (no uneven bars pun intended), so now the staff and the athletes themselves have higher expectations for this season.

There is still a lot of work yet to be done in 2013, but UK capped off its SEC slate with their first 196-plus score of the season in Gainesville, Fla., against the No. 1 Gators Friday night. The Wildcats weren't perfect, but that target of 196 was one that the team had been reaching for all season long.

Consider UK on top of the hump, trying to figure out where to go from here. Whether or not the Cats finally get over it or if they roll back down the side they've been climbing all season long is yet to be determined.

What the Wildcats can be excited about is that there is continued progress being shown on an almost weekly basis. Facing a litany of SEC powerhouses consecutively, Kentucky held its own and posted some season-high scores in the meantime. That progress was thwarted two weekends ago when No. 21 UK hosted an unranked Missouri team.

Kentucky turned in a season-high score on uneven bars that night and finished the evening off with a solid performance on floor exercise to nudge by the Tigers for UK's fifth win of the season. But UK was unrecognizable on balance beam and the Cats continued to underperform on vault.

After the meet against Missouri in which UK posted its lowest team score of the season, there was uncertainty as to how the Wildcats would respond against another SEC juggernaut back on the road for the first time in four weeks.

Though beam competitors struggled mightily against Missouri, beam has been one of the strongest and most consistent events of the season for UK. The main area concern from UK head coach Tim Garrison has been vault.

Garrison would say that vault should be his team's best event. To this point, it hasn't been. To this point, it's been frustrating. His team has only stuck four landings all season, a figure he believes should be much higher due the team's skill level and ability to stick dismounts at a higher rate in practice.

At Florida, vault turned back into UK's strength. Despite still not sticking a perfect landing in the event, the Cats walked away with a season-high score of 49.05. Garrison made lineup changes, including leading off with sophomore Sara Shipley who was competing for the first time in the event all season.

The lineup changes and the intensity of the preceding week's workout paid off as the team got back on track in a big way, including beam where UK posted its season-high score to polish of a final tally of 196.075, the sixth-best performance in program history.

With a Sunday meet at Ball State waiting this weekend, it is imperative for Kentucky to not relax as the Cats step outside of conference competition. After facing the best of the best over a five-week stretch, UK will have to continue to carry that intensity heading into the weekend and beyond.

If this team can pushits over the hump, there are potentially big things awaiting UK on the other side. A few more 196-plus performances this season, which the coaching staff believes is completely attainable, and the Wildcats will officially be over the hump and chasing greatness all the way to the NCAA Championships.

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