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Cunningham's confidence grows as UK gymnastics hits stride

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Holly Cunningham's 9.875 on beam against Ball State helped UK earn a program-record team score of 196.5 last weekend. (Aaron Borton, UK Athletics) Holly Cunningham's 9.875 on beam against Ball State helped UK earn a program-record team score of 196.5 last weekend. (Aaron Borton, UK Athletics)
All eyes were on Holly Cunningham. Her teammate had just fallen on UK's fifth balance beam routine at Ball State as the Wildcats looked to put the finishing touches on a record performance.

Needing a 9.75 to break the Kentucky team score record and to cancel out the fall, Cunningham did not deliver said score. She shattered it with a 9.875 by sticking her beam routine, picking up her teammate and the rest of her squad all the while.

It was the perfect ending to the best day in Kentucky gymnastics history as the Wildcats finished with a 196.5. It also began with an inspirational team meeting called by Cunningham before the meet in Muncie, Ind.

"I feel like knowing that we don't have any seniors on this team, I try to step up a little bit," said Cunningham. "Before the meet this time, I pulled everyone together. I made everyone tell me exactly what they were going to do and exactly how they were going to do it and for them to tell me that they knew they could do every single skill."

It was the first time that Cunningham had ever done this before a meet.

Before Cunningham could find the confidence and security to step up in front of her team in such a manner, she first had to take care of herself.

The junior had struggled to find a level of consistency on balance beam early on the in the season. It got to the point where beam coach Mary McDaniel opted to hold Cunningham out of the lineup against Georgia and Missouri. Coincidentally (or maybe not), Kentucky posted its lowest team score of the season against Missouri, including a 47.150 on beam, also the Wildcats' lowest output in the event all year.

It was at that point when Cunningham knew a change was in order.

"I've had a couple of rough months throughout the beginning of the season just trying to get my confidence level back and maintain the pressure of being the anchor," said Cunningham. "Mary had pulled me out because I kept falling meet after meet and I couldn't handle it I guess.

"I just changed my attitude in practice and told myself that this routine is easy for me; I've been doing it for maybe 10 years now. Being able to get up there and hit it (at Ball State) was really just one of the best feelings."

It's not that Cunningham didn't want to step up earlier. She just knew that she couldn't if she continued to perform at the level that she was. As a junior, she knew it was time that she took things into her own hands. Not that the Cats was struggling - because they weren't - but each one of them knew that they were each individually and collectively capable of so much more.

That's why the previous meet against Florida, where UK scored a season-high 196.075 and notched its first score of 196-plus of the season, was such a big deal.

Head coach Tim Garrison has been pushing and pushing all season long for UK to reach its potential. The Cats aren't there yet, but they have come a long way and seem to be on their way into uncharted waters. Well, perhaps with their performance against Ball State, they are at least in the shallow end.

"I think at Florida, with getting our first 196 of the season, it helped us realize that we have potential," said Cunningham. "From Florida, the coaches just told us that we each need to focus on little, individual things. I told the team, 'If you just work on making yourself two percent better just think how much better the team will be.' "

Everyone is taking notice of the team's overall confidence boost, but Cunningham's recent surge has been especially crucial and recognizable. A pressure-packed situation like the one in which she produced at Ball State was indicative of that.

"When you can go out and do what she did, that speaks to confidence right there," said Garrison of Cunningham's beam routine. "If you're not confident, you'll find a way to mess it up. On four inches of beam, it's really easy to mess it up."

But she didn't. She nailed it. She came up with a clutch performance and showed the attitude and fight that Garrison has been searching for from the beginning.

"Finally they've gotten to the point where they're not giving into senseless mistakes and they're fighting and gritting through," said Garrison. "That's what I've wanted since day one. I wanted a team that was gritty and not willing to give up a mistake.

"Obviously we had a fall off the beam, but then right behind her Holly goes up and just nails a beam routine and sticks the landing for a 9.875. That is what I'm looking for, and they did it."

It wasn't just Cunningham though who has shown resilience though. Garrison rattled off multiple performances from the Ball State meet that illustrated examples of fight and attention to detail, whether it's Kayla Hartley's continued improvement on bars, Audrey Harrison's consistency and stability or Jill Chappel's focus on sticking her landings, slowly but surely, this team is developing a more coarse grade of grit.

It's clearly been a gradual process for UK to develop its rough and tough attitude, but the results are indicative that it's happening. For Cunningham, she had to do some major polishing of her skills and her attitude before that grit could develop. Only then did she feel she could be one of the leaders on this team.

"I feel like it's taken some time," said Cunningham. "I didn't want anyone to think that I was trying to overpower them because there are some sophomores that are really close to my age and I didn't want them to think that, 'Oh, she thinks that she's the old junior and is in charge.' But I just want them to know that I'm here to encourage and help them in any way possible."

Kentucky's success at Florida was a huge momentum builder, but the meet was a big first step for Cunningham to regain what she'd lost with her return to the beam lineup after a brief hiatus. It served as an opportunity to prove to herself what she is capable of. It also gave her teammates an opportunity to reestablish the confidence that she would come up in clutch situations as the anchor of the beam lineup.

In front of a huge crowd against No. 1 Florida, Cunningham did not disappoint. She propelled UK to a 49.050 with her vault of 9.875 and promptly keyed a 9.850 to finish with a season-high 49.150 on beam. If it weren't for that performance, Cunningham likely doesn't take that step forward as a leader and a clutch performer last week against Ball State.

Now she and the Wildcats will look to continue to pile on the momentum in their final home meet of the season Friday against Bowling Green at 7 p.m. ET.

"It's a whole different story when you're out there and doing well and trying to boost up the team," said Cunningham. "If you're going out there and falling every weekend and then telling the team that they need to step up, then they'll say, 'Well, you're not doing it.'

"I think after this weekend, that's why they came up and thanked me for (talking to the team before the meet). They appreciated it. Me stepping up on beam obviously is a big step and I think they all trust me now."

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Where are regionals this year?

NCAA gymnastics regionals in 2013 will be held at the following schools: Oklahoma (Lloyd Noble Center), Oregon State (Gill Coliseum), Florida (O’Connell Center), Ohio State (St. John Arena), West Virginia (WVU Coliseum) and Alabama (Coleman Coliseum). The 2013 championships will be held April 19-21 at UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion.

That's my girl, Holly! I knew when you won State on beam at 6 years old that you were destined for greatness! I'm so proud to have been a part of your gymnastics training process and I'm proud of how great of a gymnast and woman that you've grown to be!

Love you!

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  • Kellie Olson: That's my girl, Holly! I knew when you won State on beam at 6 years old that you were destined read more
  • Guy Ramsey: NCAA gymnastics regionals in 2013 will be held at the following schools: Oklahoma (Lloyd Noble Center), Oregon State (Gill Coliseum), read more
  • bbmike: Where are regionals this year? read more