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UK's confidence rising heading into SEC Gymnastics Championships

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Sophomore Alexis Gross says team confidence is high heading into this weekend's SEC Championships. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Sophomore Alexis Gross says team confidence is high heading into this weekend's SEC Championships. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Over the last four meets, the Kentucky gymnastics team has seen a gradual increase in its meet scores as they Wildcats have reeled off an unprecedented four straight meets scoring 196-plus  for the first time in the history of the program while setting the program record of 196.775 at Penn State.

As the scores have risen, so too has the team's confidence heading into the Southeastern Conference Championships this Saturday in Little Rock, Ark.

While the season started with "I hope we can," the season is ending with an I-know-we-will attitude leading into the postseason.

The confidence hasn't magically appeared out of thin air this season. It actually goes back all the way to last year, head coach Tim Garrison's first year on the job. After a slow start, the Wildcats caught fire near the end of the season to give Garrison and his athletes promise heading into 2013. That promise led to a greater focus and desire in the offseason to improve and prepare for the upcoming campaign.

"I think this all started way back last year when the team started to come together. They started rolling a little bit at the end of the season," Garrison said. "They trained hard all the way through the summer. Then, in the preseason we started rolling. I think it developed over time, but I think when it clicked in competition was when they had more experience in competition because they were still new with some of these skills."

Garrison has harped all season long that all the Wildcats needed was in fact more seasoning. More competitive experience would be the key to the progression of these athletes, because they'd consistently displayed their capabilities in the practice gym. The only question was whether or not they would be able to duplicate those performances on the big stage.

The Wildcats started out of the gate hotter than they ever had before to open the season, finishing second at Cal-Berkeley in a quad meet, posting a program-best opening score. They've won a program record three SEC meets, including their first SEC road win since 1989.

Kentucky was rolling - and tumbling, flipping and landing - at a very high level.

But Garrison wanted more, mainly because he saw more. He was confident in his athletes to finally break through and take the next step. While UK was racking up scores in the high 195s, Garrison saw potential for 197s, with 196 as the standard.

Over the last four meets, UK has set its new standard.

"When you can put four 196s in a row, you're obviously doing well in every event," said Garrison. "You haven't really had one event that's a downer or something, where for a long period this season, we always had one event that held us back. Then we'd fight our way back from that bad event."

And UK has certainly shown resilience all season long. It was never more evident than at Ball State when junior Holly Cunningham picked up sophomore Alexis Gross on the balance beam in the final event of the meet. Kentucky was on pace for a program-record score, and when Gross fell off the balance beam, it was Cunningham to the rescue.

"That just shows that we're trusting each other," said Gross. "I messed up at Ball State and Holly had my back. It's the same thing that we've been doing all year, and we've been trying to teach ourselves to trust in our teammates when you make mistakes, someone's always there to pick up the pieces."

That trust can easily be identified as confidence. Not just in themselves, but each athlete has come to be able to trust and be confident in one another to do her job, as well as be able to come to the rescue things go wrong. That trust and confidence has also permitted each athlete to focus on herself and each individual skill without having to worry about the pressure of picking up a struggling teammate.

"I definitely think that there's so much more trust between everyone because we're confident that our teammates are going to hit their routines and not scared that they're going to fall," said sophomore Sara Shipley. "I think that means a lot because that makes you more confident in yourself, too."

Each athlete saw the possibility of something special at the beginning of the season. It took the low point of their meet against Missouri in which UK scored its lowest team point total of the year, even though the Cats escaped with a victory.

Between the Missouri meet (a win) and the following Florida meet (a loss), Kentucky found its turning point. The attitude had changed and this team was different. The disappointment of the low score at Missouri served as a motivator and it led to its highest score of the season at No. 1 Florida the following week.

The end result of Florida launched UK into its current four-meet stretch of 196s, and that 196 at Florida has been the key to it all. But even that result felt somewhat empty.

"Coming off a hard meet, we go to Florida," said Gross. "That's the meet after and you have the fire in you.

"We knew we messed up and now we had to make up for it. Everyone did and we got that 196 and everyone was happy about it, but the fact that everyone walked away from the meet and felt that we were better than what we just did, all the little mistakes we made, I remember a bunch of us saying that we could have gone 197 if we had stuck dismounts."

Kentucky is still looking for that 197, and It's no pipe dream either. If the Cats continue to improve weekly as they have like the last four, why can't UK score a 197 at SECs this weekend?

One thing is for sure: Kentucky is riding a tidal wave of confidence heading into the SEC Championships and is looking to make a statement.

"I think everyone's feeling pretty relaxed. It's fun," said Shipley. "We know that we're good now, we just have to prove to everyone that we are good. It's actually a lot of fun right now. We're pushing hard, but we're also doing our stuff, and it's not taking as much work as it did at the beginning of the season."

Even though the SEC boasts multiple top-10 teams nationally, that won't matter when UK walks into the arena on Saturday.

"We're more prepared than ever before. It's more than that, but I just have so much faith in this team," said Gross. "This kind of confidence is something that we need to keep rolling. I think for once this year, we don't go into a meet and get intimidated by the other team. We look at them and think that we're just as good."

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