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Gymnastics out to continue cycle of success after record 2013 season

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Tim Garrison will begin his third season as Kentucky gymnastics head coach in January. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Tim Garrison will begin his third season as Kentucky gymnastics head coach in January. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Nearly three years ago when he was named head coach, Tim Garrison spelled out his vision for Kentucky gymnastics.

He emphasized the importance of training and conditioning. He talked of confidence and raising his student-athletes' expectations for their own performance.

Though he knew nothing would happen overnight, Garrison still had a clear picture of what the future would hold.

"Success breeds motivation," Garrison said in April 2011. "Once you get a little success going, you start to get wins against some SEC teams that we are going to be seeing. That's how you take those steps."

Two seasons in, what Garrison foresaw is beginning to come to pass.

The Wildcats are fresh off a 2013 season that, by almost any measure, was the best in school history. UK posted a record Regional Qualifying Score of 196.06 and knocked off three conference opponents for the first time ever.

Nearly every gymnast from that record-setting team returns in 2014, creating a sort of cycle of success.

"You can call it motivation, you can call it whatever you want, but I think what it is is they expect to do well now," Garrison said on Friday. "So they're motivated because they want to do well. In order to do well, they've got to work hard."

As UK prepares for its season-opening Excite Night meet on Jan. 10, the Cats aren't out to duplicate what they did a year ago. They want much, much more.

For example, Kentucky is ranked No. 21 in the GymInfo preseason coaches' poll. It matches UK's final 2013 ranking and is the highest preseason ranking in school history, but Garrison's reaction to it is not what you might expect.

"We were disappointed with that," he said.

It's not that Garrison isn't pleased with the progress his team has made. He is. He knows the work it's taken to reach this point because he's been there every step of the way.

What his words reflect is a steadfast refusal to accept the status quo, even when the status quo is UK's best ever. Even as the Cats set a school record with a 196.775 to cap off their first ever streak of four consecutive meets scoring a 196 or better, Garrison saw even more potential for immediate growth.

"For me, I look at where we could be and the things that we gave away and the things that we need to correct," Garrison said. "It's always about improving and I think our team has taken that on also."

Fully embracing that attitude is a senior class that will be called on to set the tone for the team.

In Garrison's first two seasons, UK had to cobble together leadership from unlikely sources. But now, with Audrey Harrison, Holly Cunningham, Kayla Sienkowski and Kayla Hartley (a redshirt junior) having established themselves as consistent performers, Garrison will look to his seniors.

"They've just grown up a lot," Garrison said. "They've grown up and matured, which is something we were looking for. I don't think they knew what was up and down when we first got here. Now they know what to expect and they can help others with that perspective they've gained."

Harrison will be called on to be UK's top overall performer once again. As a junior, she led the SEC in all-around titles. Cunningham will look to post big scores on beam and vault and Garrison believes she could score a perfect 10 on the latter. Sienkowski will be asked to provide a steady presence on beam and floor, while Hartley will compete on bars, vault and -- most importantly -- floor, where she will be UK's anchor.

The leadership of the group was put to the test last week by some preseason adversity, when UK learned that All-SEC performer Alexis Gross had been lost for the season to a torn elbow ligament. When Garrison told the team the news last Thursday, he got exactly the response he wanted.

"We talk about that, but they already accept it," Garrison said. "They didn't, any of them, seem like they were devastated by it. Obviously we feel bad for Alexis first, we feel bad for the team second, but we're going to get through it."

Gross's absence will hurt depth, but it has not changed expectations.

As Garrison continues to recruit, UK will incorporate more and more difficulty into its routines. For now, it's about consistency.

"This year, we're looking for clean and consistent," Garrison said. "Hopefully what fans are going to see is us hitting every routine with rare exception, sticking landings and just executing very, very well."

That doesn't mean fans won't be in for plenty of entertainment in Memorial Coliseum this winter.

On floor, Garrison is pleased with UK's enhanced choreography and music. His belief was further reinforced at the team's Blue/White Intrasquad meet, when a judge came away with a similar feeling.

And once again, UK will face one of the nation's best schedules. The Cats will play host to four ranked teams in 2014, including top-ranked and defending national champion Florida. In addition, UK will take on No. 2 Alabama, No. 3 Oklahoma, No. 5 LSU, No. 8 Georgia and No. 10 Nebraska away from home.  

"We're just gluttons for punishment, basically," Garrison said. "We ask for it."

It all begins at home against No. 15 Penn State, West Virginia and Ball State.

"The nice thing about starting this year in a quad meet is the fact there's a lot to watch for the people that are going to be in the stands," Garrison said. "That's going to be a fun environment just to have gymnastics going on everywhere."

Last season, UK fell to Penn State in posting that school record and saw West Virginia at NCAA Regionals, meaning Excite Night will present an immediate test.

That's the idea.

"We go against tough competition, but at the end of the year we're going to be that much tougher," Garrison said. "Nothing's going to surprise us. We should go into the SEC Championship and say, 'Alright, here we go. This is just another one.' "

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