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Gymnastics 'chomping at the bit' on eve of Excite Night

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For more than nine months, the No. 21 Kentucky gymnastics team has thought about this moment.

After UK's record-setting 2013 season ended with a program-best score in the NCAA Regionals, Tim Garrison and the Wildcats immediately set their sights on their 2014 debut.

At Friday's annual Excite Night at the Kentucky Classic, the long wait ends.

"It's the first meet of the year and we're obviously very excited about the opportunity to get out here and compete," head coach Tim Garrison said. "We have been training, going on four months now, so the girls are kind of chomping at the bit to get going."

Garrison has been pleased with his gymnasts' approach throughout the offseason, including at UK's Blue/White Meet last month. There, the Cats got a flavor for what meets will be like. Some athletes proved to themselves they were ready for the big stage; others learned they had some fine-tuning to do.

With No. 15 Penn State, West Virginia and Ball State set to offer UK its first live competition of the season at 7 p.m. ET in Memorial Coliseum, Garrison expects the Cats to step up.

"I think we have some competitors on this team that are excited about the work, but are more excited about the competition," Garrison said. "Once you get on the competitive floor, most of the time they are going to bring their game to a different level and that's what I am looking for out of this group."

Garrison will also be looking for consistency. With the Cats still building toward routines with a higher degree of difficulty through training and recruiting, he knows success will come from steadiness.

He wants that to be just one part of his team's identity.

"I want them to be an excited group," Garrison said. "I want them to be a tough group. I want them to be fighters. I want them to be scrappy. I want them to come out of the meet tomorrow knowing if something happens or there is a slip-up here or there, that the next five will take care of it and make their routines."

It's Garrison's hope that that resilience is so plain to see that the big crowd there for Excite Night festivities will leave Memorial thinking about it.

"That is another thing that I asked the athletes to do is develop an identity, but not only for themselves, but for the fan base," Garrison said. "I want them to be excited, even if someone has a slip-up here and there. I want that fan to come back because they saw that athlete and how they reacted after and anticipation for the next time knowing they are going to hit it."

The athletes hitting those routines for UK will be familiar to fans.

Audrey Harrison -- who led the Southeastern Conference in all-around titles a season ago -- will once again anchor the lineup as a senior. Redshirt junior and All-SEC performer Kayla Hartley will likely compete on vault, bars and floor, where she will serve as UK's anchor.

Returners Holly Cunningham, Kayla Sienkowski, Shelby Hilton, Tiara Phipps, Marissa Beucler, Kenzie Hedges and Shannon Mitchell will all play a part as well, but it's not yet clear how UK's lineup will look. That will make Friday a learning experience for everyone, from athletes to coaches.

"Even though we have a lot of returners from last year's team, we are still playing around with some lineups and changing things around and will be very fluid even through the warm-up tomorrow," Garrison said. "We're going to learn a lot and they are going to learn a lot and it will make us better in the following weekend."

For that reason, Garrison won't measure his team's success this season until much later.

He hopes to settle on a lineup sometime around Sara Shipley's anticipated return from injury in late February or early March. Since UK is facing what many believe to be the nation's toughest schedule, some bumps in the road are surely in store for the Cats because of that.

"Trust me; I want to win worse than anything," Garrison said. "I don't like losing. It is not my makeup. But, at the same time, we are competing against tough competition and we are getting better every weekend and are really building this team for the future."

Whenever Garrison refers to the future, his meaning is twofold.

First, he's looking to lift his current team to its fullest potential. That was proven by the Cats posting their highest-ever Regional Qualifying Score in 2013, as well as setting a record with a 196.775 against the same Penn State team that will compete in Memorial on Friday.

But second, Garrison's goal of making Kentucky a perennial power on both the SEC and national scenes is never far from his mind.

"Part of this group right here is going to be there when I think that comes to fruition, so we want to go against tough competition every weekend," Garrison said.

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