Each week throughout the fall, each UK gymnast will share her thoughts about the upcoming 2015 season, what it's like being a Division I student-athlete at Kentucky and what makes being a Wildcat so special. Please note that these posts are the student-athletes' personal reactions and the views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the University of Kentucky or UK Athletics.
First up is redshirt senior Kayla Hartley, a native of nearby Versailles, Ky. One of two captains on the 2014-15 team, Hartley talks about the team's fast start to preseason practice, helping the freshmen transition to life at UK and her excitement about coming back for one more year.
As the school year begins, so does the UK gymnastics team's preseason training. We've been practicing for a week and a half now, and it's been the best start to the season I've seen in my five years as a Wildcat. I feel like everyone has come in prepared and ready to go. We always want a fast start in the fall, as it makes the spring season easier because you're ready, and feel confident walking into an arena knowing you're going to hit your routines. Right now in the gym, we're working on getting the routines down. As preseason progresses, we'll slowly start perfecting these routines, and the faster that happens, the better our scores will be in the spring. Of course, it's always fun getting great scores.
Our fast start to the preseason was definitely evident with a 100-percent passing rate on this year's conditioning test. I was so happy to see everyone pass this year, I knew it would set the tone in the best way possible for the season. The conditioning test is the first time the team really comes together as one, supporting and cheering each other on. Knowing that we're all in this together helps push each other along. For the upperclassmen, we know the conditioning test is only the beginning of a season of conditioning. The conditioning test is time to show the freshmen that coming together and supporting each other will really help make preseason and all the conditioning a little easier. The way I see it, as a big family unit we suffer (conditioning mostly) together, we survive (conditioning again) together, and we succeed together (winning, or for the conditioning test, passing).
Not only can you see it in the conditioning test, but the notion that everyone feels they have a place on the team is a great sign. Everyone comes in knowing they have a job to do and they are going to do it. Breaking records is always fun but not as fun as actually making the goals. Our goal is always to make it the nationals. Last year Audrey Harrison made it and this year we want to make it as a team for the first time in program history. Everyone agrees that we can do it, we just have to stay on track and get ready and down to business.
We have an equal distribution of upperclassmen and underclassmen, which is going to be a good thing for this team. In the past we have mostly been a young team still learning how to compete. This year we have plenty of upperclassman leadership that will help the freshmen make the transition into the demands and expectations of being a Division-I student-athlete. Upperclassmen will be able to help the freshmen handle all the particulars of being a student-athlete with little tips we've learned along the way. Things like getting more study hall hours in on off days rather than on Thursday nights, when everyone is trying to get those last few minutes, and learning the back roads to avoid traffic and getting to class and practice on time are some of those tips that I've told the freshmen to make their first semester in Lexington easier.
I'm really excited for the opportunity to come back for one last season. I'm looking forward to being with these girls and competing with them all for the first or the last time. I'm ready to break more records and make history with this team, doing the sport I love, wearing the blue and white and competing in my home state. I'll always bleed blue.
In late July, nine student-athletes -- Bria Goss (women's basketball), Jared Phillips (track/cross country), Charlie Reymann (men's soccer), Montana Whittle (gymnastics), Danielle Fitzgerald (women's soccer), Katrina Keirns (swimming and diving), John Sutton (rifle), Kirsten Lewis (women's tennis), Haley Mills (women's golf) -- participated in the second of two annual service trips to Ethiopia sponsored by UK Athletics. Over the next week, they will take turns sharing their experiences through a series of blog entries. Please note that these posts are the student-athletes' personal reactions and the views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the University of Kentucky or UK Athletics.
Today, Montana Whittle, Danielle Fitzgerald and Charlie Reymann each write about an unforgettable day spent in the poorest area of Addis Ababa.
Where to start?
I find myself at a loss of words, because this experience cannot be described. There are no words or pictures that do this place justice. I wish I could let you see my memories and feel what I have felt. I will do my best to help you understand this place and its people, but I would highly encourage you to explore this world yourself and challenge you to keep an open mind.
Today started with an amazing plate of French toast and a cup of coffee, and finished with me questioning my entire existence. After breakfast we were given a brief explanation of what the day would bring. At this time I thought I was going to change lives, but the truth is that my life would be changed, forever. We were told that we were going to visit the poorest part of Addis Ababa. It is about one square mile, maybe a little bigger, and is home to over 100,000 people. These people are the poorest of the poor, most of them have been shunned due to disabilities and illnesses, such as leprosy or HIV/AIDS.
We pull up in our van to Mark's office and children swarm us. From the minute we walked outside to the time we left, those children held our hands. They were so excited to meet us and tell us about themselves. All they wanted was for us to remember them, pray for them, love them. These children had such a huge impact on me. They were the happiest kids I had ever met, and yet they had nothing. Most of them had shoes that were falling apart and clothes that were worn thin. The two boys who held my hand had asked me for things, such as clothes, shoes or food. It broke my heart that we were not allowed to give them anything, because it would be unfair to those who did not get something. All I wanted to do was give these kids everything they needed; I wanted to tell them that everything was going be OK. But, the truth is, I had no idea. The memory of these children chasing after our van when we left will stay with me forever.
Our mission today was to deliver food and supplies (coffee beans, macaroni, salt, matches and soap) to widows and families in need. At the office we met the women and children who were going to be receiving these supplies. These women were inspirational. Faithful. They were so grateful, even though some of them could not even walk. Two women in particular really impacted me because one was in a wheelchair and the other had a daughter who could not walk, so she carried her on her back. When we delivered their food to their homes, the walk was not short. These mothers did not complain. In fact they were overjoyed just to meet us and have us see their homes.
I have never seen such poor living conditions, where their walls were sod, their roofs were tin and their floors were mud. A large house would be the size of our bathrooms in America. Yet, we were invited in without a moment's hesitation. They were so proud and had no shame; they wanted us to see everything in their homes and even offered us coffee. The first thing they did was thank us and tell us that they would be praying for us every day. I could not help but get emotional; I was not the one who needed prayers. I have never seen God work through people so much. They had so much going against them -- missing limbs, leprosy, unable to walk, crooked feet -- and yet they still were so patient with us, still so loving, still so faithful, still so happy.
My experience today and every day this week was unreal and unforgettable. Now that I am home, all I can think about are those beautiful people that I met and my plan to return in the future. This experience has caused me to question everything that I know and everything that I want. Everything that was so important to me in the past is not important anymore. I know this experience has changed me for the better and I hope I never forget the faces and hearts of the people of Ethiopia.
Today was spent in one of the world's poorest places, which is built around the city dump. We started the morning with our standard "UK breakfast special" consisting of French toast and eggs but nothing we saw after was familiar. We were aware of the immense state of poverty but familiarity stopped there.
As we rolled up to the office that works to provide sponsorships to the people of the area, we were instantly greeted by big grins and precious little hands that wanted to be held. The instant joy the kids felt from simply having somebody touch them was quite overwhelming.
Mark took us into the office where we formed an assembly line to package macaroni, salt, body soap and other items for people who had been put on the sponsorship wait list. The recipients were sitting outside of the office and even though most were suffering from starvation, HIV/AIDS or leprosy, the pure joy they expressed seemed to be most contagious. We each carried a bag full of necessities to different houses, kids still in tow throughout the day. Although their houses' sizes were more comparable to a standard American bathroom than an American house, everyone was so proud to show us their homes and invite us to stay.
Each member of our team had about three kids latched onto them throughout the day and close to 100 followed us both when we were walking from house to house and running closely behind when our van took us to other parts of the town. There are few words to describe the emotions felt when a swarm of kids chases your van for miles and the two or three kids you've grown very close to come find you again, happy as can be to have done so. The simplest things brought them the most joy: thumb wars, hand games and skipping through the streets. Not even a language barrier could hinder that. Many of the kids would push their way through the line of hands to get closer to us but they did not realize they were the real celebrities, their endless love and eagerness to get to know us more admirable than our presence.
One of the hardest parts of the day was leaving the kids we had established relationships with. Eyes teared up when our new friends asked for pens to write their names on our arms in hopes that we would remember them forever and keep them in our prayers. Nothing can prepare you for the moment that two little girls ask you to take them home with you because life would be better that way.
It is so easy for us to get caught up in how busy our own lives are and forget about what is really important. These people don't have money to spend, cars to drive or cell phones to obsess over. They do have each other. And without worldly relationships, they still have a strong faith in God. I have never been so overwhelmed by such a concentrated sentiment of love. Relationships were valued so much more when there was not an emphasis on material possessions. Every person we came in contact with was significantly happier with their lives than I have ever seen before and I believe there is something to be said for that. Material poverty and spiritual wealth may not look glamorous from the outside looking in, but a completely different story was told once we were able to see from these beautiful people's perspective, even if only for a small fraction of time. Charlie Reymann
Today was our second day in Ethiopia and it was full of eye-opening experiences. We started off with breakfast and then traveled to an area considered one of the poorest places in Ethiopia. The city began when all the people with leprosy were sent away and as time went on more and more outcasts were sent here. It surrounds a trash dump, and sometimes the people will search in the dump for food or supplies for their houses. We knew going into this day that this will be something we will never forget.
It is such a blessing to be able to experience a place like this. As we arrived, the first observations we had were the amount of people on the streets and what they called their homes. In the U.S. a home like we saw would make people look the other way. The houses were made from mud, wood and tin roof. And they were just thankful to have a home, something I think we all take for granted.
Once we arrived, we teamed up with a community center to provide some of the people in the community with a month's worth of supplies. The community center we worked with sponsors women and men from the city. The people that we helped today were men and women in line for the next sponsor. Some of the supplies we gave to them were macaroni, coffee beans, sugar and soap. We split up into little teams to make the process go as smoothly as possible. Since we are all athletes we all know how to work in a team, so we got to work.
Once we were done we all got the privilege to hand these men and women their supplies, which was a wonderful sight. Seeing their faces as we gave them the supplies was remarkable. They all said "God bless you" in English when we gave them their bag. After we gave them their supplies, some of us followed them to their houses to help carry them. These women came a long way to get their supplies, if I had to guess the farthest was two miles. And the lady who traveled the two miles was in a wheel chair!
As we walked with these women, questions came into my head. How does a place get like this? How does any human live in this city? Is there any solution to this problem? We may never know the answers to those questions but seeing the children filled us all with joy. Children came from everywhere to walk with us like we were rock stars. Each of us had at least three children holding our hands. Their smiles and joy were contagious to all of us. A place where it is hard to find anything to be happy about, these children could not stop smiling.
As I walked with these kids, I realized they were just happy to be alive. Video games and computers did not matter to them unlike kids in America. Materialistic goods are what most Americans really care about: their phones, their cars and their jewelry. These people have nothing and they all act like they have everything they need and more. It made us realize that we do not need all the "things" we own to be happy. They just enjoyed being with their friends and walking around with Americans for the day. And making new friends! We were their idols. They were thankful for a new friend, and that someone will be thinking about them. We get so caught up in our little world that we are not thankful for small things in life because we take them for granted.
We all went back to the community center to regroup and get ready for lunch. We went to a restaurant and almost everybody ordered a pizza. My pizza was delicious! We travel with three Ethiopian kids our age to help us learn the culture, translate, and most of all become our friends. Their names are Wario, Girma, and Khalib. They all made us try this green hot sauce that was like fire in your mouth. According to them everyone is used to hot spices in Ethiopia so when Americans come, they are not used to how hot the food is. Besides the green sauce that we tried everything was great and we headed back to explore the city a little more.
After lunch, we walked right up to the dump. We went inside a small village that was right next to it and the craziest thing happened. The little kids who were with us all morning found us and walked with us again!
I could not understand how some of these families can live this close to the dump and be so happy with their lives. No one would ever live as close to a trash dump as these homes were in the United States. We all went into the village and Mark called us around this small boy. He then told us that the kid he was holding up had a tumor above his eye not too long ago. One of the families who sponsored his family paid for this child to have his tumor removed. The kid could not have been more than four years old. This story touched all of our hearts. God used the sponsor to save that little boy's life. A remarkable story that we will never forget.
In Ethiopia everything is about relationships, and I experienced that right when I got off the bus. A little kid named Honuk, 10 years old, ran right up to me and asked me my name. I was very impressed with his English, and for the rest of the day we were best friends. He asked me questions about everything that had to do with America and told me as much as he could about his life. Listening to him talk about his life just made me want to help him in every way I could. I gave him one of the soccer balls we brought and he was so excited to get a new ball. As he was carrying the ball around all his friends you could tell he felt really special that he had the new Nike soccer ball. Throughout the day I kept finding myself thinking how smart this kid is and if there was anything I could do to help his life. He was so joyful and happy to be where he was.
All the kids were so happy! They were happy because they know that they mean something to someone who lives outside their village. That means so much to them. Honuk and some of the other kids wanted us to remember their names so bad that they wrote them on our arms. He borrowed a pen from a street vendor and pressed as hard as he could to spell out his name. The moment that will never leave my mind is when we were all getting on the bus to leave my new friend Honuk ran up to the bus and waved for me to open the window. With a smiling face and love in his eyes he said, "Charlie, I will miss you. I will pray for you." Those were the types of moments we all experienced today and I think we all agreed that we will never forget this day.
Walking through the city we saw more little kids laughing, playing, and loving each other than anywhere in the U.S. We saw mothers more proud of their homes than most mothers in America. They might not have as much money or opportunity but they have more joy and spirit. This day was an incredible day that we will always cherish in our hearts.
Welcome to UK Gymnastics Championship Central. Follow this page for daily all-access updates on the UK gymnastics team during its postseason competition. Videos, photos, news, commentary and more from team headquarters at the SEC Championships, NCAA Regionals and NCAA Championships, can all be found right here.
UK Among the Nation's Attendance Leaders | 2:25 p.m. ET
The national attendance rankings for the 2014 season have been released, and once again Kentucky is among the NCAA leaders. For the first time in program history, the Wildcats averaged over 3,000 fans per meet.
In 2014, the Wildcats are one of just eight schools, six of them from the SEC, to average more than 3,000 fans per meet and have a season high crowd over 5,000.
An average of 3,265 fans watched the Wildcats in four home contests in 2014, which ranks eighth nationally. UK is one of seven SEC teams to rank in the top 10 in average attendance, while all eight league teams are in the top 17.
Kentucky opened the season with Excite Night on Jan. 10, when 5,839 filled Memorial Coliseum, the biggest crowd at home since 2007 and third-largest since at least 1997. The total is ninth in the NCAA rankings of school's highest home meet attendance.
Thank you to the Big Blue Nation for their continued support this season, and we look forward to seeing you back in Memorial Coliseum in 2015!
Monday, April 21, 2014
Countdown to the 2015 Season | 11:40 a.m. ET
While Kentucky's season ended Friday, the official end to the 2014 season was yesterday at the NCAA Event Finals. After Florida and Oklahoma shared the NCAA title on Saturday, four individual national champions were crowned Sunday. The 2015 schedule will be released early in the fall, but the countdown to next season officially begins today, 263 days ahead of the season-opener.
Saturday, April 19, 2014
Photos from the NCAA Championships & Back in Lexington | 3:15 p.m. ET
As we arrive back in Lexington, check out the photo gallery from the last three days at the NCAA Championships in Birmingham, Ala., on UK's Facebook page. Additionally, if you missed it, a full recap from the NCAA Championships, where UK made its first appearance since 2010, can be found here on UKathletics.com.
The 2014 season came to a close for UK yesterday at the NCAA Championships, and now we are on our way back to Lexington. A complete recap from the NCAA Championships first session, where senior Audrey Harrison finished tied for 18th on balance beam is here.
Friday, April 18, 2014
NCAA Championships Recap | 7:30 p.m. CT
A complete recap, results, video and more from Audrey Harrison's performance on beam in the NCAA Championships first session can be found here. Harrison finished in a tie for 18th with a 9.800. The score is tied for sixth-highest NCAA score in UK history on the event.
In session one, Oklahoma, Georgia and LSU advanced to tomorrow's Super Six team finals. The second session of the NCAA Championships semifinals is underway, with host-Alabama, Florida, Nebraska, Penn State, UCLA and Utah.
Harrison Ties for 18th with UK's Sixth-Best Score in NCAA History | 4:40 p.m. CT
Senior Audrey Harrison scored a 9.800 on beam to finish tied for 18th among 45 competitors in session 1 of the national championships. The score is tied for the sixth-highest on beam at the NCAA Championships in program history. Only Jenny Hansen, who won eight national titles as a Wildcat, has recorded a higher score.
Complete results can be found here, and we caught up with Audrey after the competition, and that video can be found here or below. Audrey, the coaches and staff are heading to dinner now, before tonight's second session. We'll have much more from Birmingham towards the beginning of the second session, at 8 p.m. ET.
Harrison Scores a 9.800 | 3:15 p.m. CT
Audrey Harrison scored a 9.800 on balance beam. She currently is tied for 11th, shy of advancing to Sunday's individual finals. Through four rotations, a 9.900 is needed to place in the top four and advance.
Underway at the NCAA Championships | 1:05 p.m. CT
The teams, along with UK's Audrey Harrison, have been introduced, and we are about to get underway in the first session of the NCAA Championships. Fans can watch the full competition here on NCAA.com, or follow along with live results. Harrison will compete on beam with Georgia, in the fourth of six rotations.
NCAA Championships Meet Day is Here | 7:45 a.m. CT
The wait for Audrey Harrison and UK is almost over, the NCAA Championships begin today. The competition begins at 2 p.m. ET, and Harrison will compete in the fourth rotation on beam. Notes, stats, historical records and more are all available in the preview and meet notes on UKathletics.com. Harrison will be the first Wildcat since 2010 to compete at the national championship meet and the 10th UK gymnast in program history. She is the fourth to qualify on an individual event and the first on beam.
Thursday, April 17, 2014
NCAA Championships Notes | 4:20 p.m. CT
Notes for the NCAA Championships, which include info on UK's qualifier Audrey Harrison, Kentucky's NCAA Championships history, a recap of the 2014 season and more are available here and by clicking on the first page of the notes, below.
Championship Practice About to Begin | 1 p.m. CT
The practice session is wrapping up, and UK senior Audrey Harrison had a good practice on balance beam, her event at tomorrow's NCAA Championships semifinal. She will be in the same rotation as Georgia, so the practice also gave Audrey the opportunity to meet their team. We are heading to lunch now downtown, before having the rest of the afternoon and evening off.
Championship Practice About to Begin | 11:15 a.m. CT
The first NCAA Championships practice session, which includes UK senior Audrey Harrison, is about to begin here at the BJCC Arena in Birmingham. It is familiar territory for Harrison and UK coaches and staff, after the SEC Championships were held in the same venue nearly a month ago.
We just returned to the hotel after a great banquet in downtown Birmingham with the rest of the teams at this year's championships. The dinner had a great view of the city, and we were able to enjoy the end of a beautiful day outside, mingling with everyone before dinner. After dinner, American Idol winner Taylor Hicks, a Birmingham native, performed. It was a great event to kick off a fun next few days here with the nation's best collegiate gymnasts.
Off to Birmingham | 11:45 a.m. ET
We are officially on the road to Birmingham, Ala., for the 2014 NCAA Gymnastics Championships. The travel party includes senior Audrey Harrison, head coach Tim Garrison, assistant coach Mary McDaniel, trainer Jake Smith and myself, Charlie Healy, the team's media relations director. The drive is expected to take about six and a half hours, and upon arrival in Birmingham, we will all go to the NCAA Championship banquet, with the other teams and individuals competing this weekend. Assistant coach Chuck Dickerson, along with many of Audrey's teammates, will join us on Friday.
Kentucky set a school record at Penn State in the regular season finale last season. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
Throughout the 2013-14 campaign, the Kentucky gymnastics team has turned in solid performances on each of the four events in a meet. However, it's putting it all together at once that will allow Kentucky's season to live on, which the Wildcats have yet to do this season.
UK head coach Tim Garrison has preached consistency to his team as the NCAA Regional quickly approaches. It's the one thing that has escaped his team throughout the course of the season, and in order for Kentucky to advance to the NCAA Championships in Birmingham, the Cats will need to heed the message.
"We still have yet to put a complete meet together," said Garrison who is in his third season at UK. "In my mind, we've improved in a lot of ways; we still haven't shown 100 percent of that improvement all at one time, which is something we're looking forward to doing this weekend."
The Wildcats will put their skills to the test this weekend in State College, Pa., joining No. 1 Florida, No. 12 Oregon State, No. 15 Penn State, New Hampshire and Maryland in the program's 26th NCAA appearance, including 10 straight. In the 25 previous appearances, UK has never advanced to the NCAA Championships. Hence the reason Garrison has instilled the concept that his team needs to be consistent to earn a top two finish and a berth in the NCAA Championships.
This year's NCAA Regional has put the Wildcats in a great position to claim that first NCAA Finals appearance. For instance, Kentucky is familiar with the venue in State College, having competed at Penn State last season. Coincidentally, the Wildcats registered a school record mark of 196.775 in the regular season finale at Penn State's Rec Hall, which is where this weekend's regional will be held.
Also, earlier this season, UK defeated Penn State in the season-opening meet, as part of a four-team event in Lexington.
"We think we have a favorable draw, I think for several different reasons," Garrison explained. "One, we're comfortable with Penn State. We're comfortable with the arena. We've competed against Penn State this year and had a favorable result. Obviously, that was the first meet of the year, but still it was a good result for us, so we're comfortable with that fact."
It all starts with building momentum.
Many times a meet can be determined with how a team starts. Garrison is hoping his team can build some early momentum to control the jitters and settle his team down to begin a consistent performance.
"Obviously we need a good start on bars," Garrison said. "There's a bit of momentum that comes along with getting into a competition and doing well and building momentum. It has to start somewhere and that momentum is going to have to start on bars. I'm looking for consistency. I'm looking to save every tenth we can possibly save. I'm looking to build momentum. I'm looking to put pressure on the other teams."
Kentucky's rotation will be bars, beam, bye, floor and vault. The rotation gives the Wildcats an early chance to build momentum, as the uneven bars have proven to be a good event this season.
"We have a great rotation," Garrison said. "We're starting off on bars, which is a good event for us. We go to beam, which is second, and we're settling down and we're into the competition by that point. Then we go to floor and we finish off on vault. Floor and vault this year are two very strong events for us, so we're looking forward to finishing on strong events."
Senior Audrey Harrison, who will compete in all four events, will carry some of the burden of building and sustaining that momentum and consistency.
"I definitely think we have a great chance this year," said Harrison about the team advancing to the NCAA Championships. "It's definitely possible and our confidence has been building throughout the season, so I think it can all come together and we can hit all four events at the same time, which would be awesome."
Every little detail matters when postseason arrives. Building momentum to start the meet is vital. Consistency throughout the competition is crucial.
The stage is set for the Wildcats, now they just have to take advantage.
"I think we're going to have to have a good day," Garrison said. "I think we have the team. I think we have the draw. It really is set up well for us to be successful in many different ways. Every region is going to be tough. You have six teams going in and they're all very competitive or else they wouldn't be there. You have to be one of the top two teams to come out of the region. They're going to be tough, every single one of them."
Audrey Harrison has emerged as one of the nation's best on floor exercise in recent weeks. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
By most measures the Kentucky gymnastics team produced the best season
in school history last year. The 2014 campaign hasn't quite lived up to
the promise of the last campaign given that the Wildcats featured no
seniors in 2013, but things have begun looking up of late.
This year's campaign has had its ups and downs, but the majority of the
highs have occurred in the last month. The Wildcats have overcome some
head-scratching early-season performances and righted the ship in recent
weeks, reaching No. 24 in the most recent rankings formula.
such, Tim Garrison's team is in prime position to make a nice stretch
run, beginning with Friday's trip to top-ranked LSU, the regular-season
The trip will be a test for the Wildcats, not just
because they're heading into one of the most energetic settings in
college gymnastics and taking on the No. 1 team in the country.
9-9 on the season and 2-4 in Southeastern Conference competition, is coming off
back-to-back home meets with scores of 196.000 or higher, which serves
as a sort of threshold for the team towards the latter stages of the
season. Basically the Wildcats target scores more than 196.
two most recent wins were upsets of ranked teams, but they came inside
Memorial Coliseum. From here on out road trips are in the cards. It goes
LSU this week, the SEC Championships the next and
very likely an NCAA regional shortly thereafter.
Wildcats struggled early in the season on the road, but
appeared to right the ship on a two-meet weekend in late February.
fact, both Kentucky and LSU have steadily improved since they last
faced off this season, on February 15 at the Metroplex Challenge in Fort
Worth, Texas. Kentucky posted a 194.850, while LSU notched a then-school-record 197.875.
LSU went on to attain the No. 1 ranking in
the ensuing weeks, while for their part the Wildcats began their
current run of strong results from the next week on.
At the time,
UK recorded two of its best three scores of the season during the road
trip the week after the first showdown with LSU, a 195.975 at Arkansas
and a 195.2 at Nebraska.
The Wildcats returned home the next week
and knocked off No. 11 Auburn with the second-highest home score in
school history, 196.275. To follow that big score on Feb. 28, the Wildcats downed No. 22 California and
Centenary with a 196.150 last Friday for a Senior Night victory.
So Kentucky heads to LSU with momentum, and floor exercise has very much been the catalyst for
the team's positive direction.
floor closing out the night (last Friday) I thought we had a great
performance once again," Garrison said. "It seems we have gotten to the
point where floor is rock-solid. We have the capability to score
49.400-49.600 every week on floor."
The Wildcats are ranked 16h
nationally on floor with a 49.113 average, having scored more than a 49
at all but one meet this season, including a school-record 49.650 to
clinch the win vs. Auburn.
Floor exercise has absolutely been a
rock for the Wildcats, which is illustrated by the fact that Garrison
has such lofty expectations for the team on that event.
one has been better on floor than senior Audrey Harrison, who has won
the event four times this season and has emerged as a near-lock to score
over 9.9 on the event in recent weeks.
Entering the stretch run,
the Wildcats will rely on Harrrison and the floor-exercise lineup more
broadly to help elevate the team's performances and keep the momentum
Tim Garrison had a good feeling heading into a Southeastern Conference home meet against No. 11 Auburn.
Even after he learned on Friday afternoon that senior Holly Cunningham would have to be removed from UK's vault and beam lineup due to an issue with her hip flexor, Garrison couldn't shake the positive vibes.
"We had a great feeling about the night. I'm not sure exactly what it was," Garrison said. "Feelings are just that. You don't know why sometimes, but you just have them."
Garrison might not be giving himself enough credit for how well he knows his team.
Making the last-minute changes of inserting Kayla Hartley into the vault lineup and Shelby Hilton on beam, the Wildcats didn't miss a beat. UK posted the fifth-highest score in school history -- also a season high -- to take down No. 11 Auburn, 196.275-194.825.
"We had (the good feelings) and the athletes were all smiles and ready to go today and they were up for it and that's the way it played out," Garrison said. "Why it happened, I'm not exactly sure other than the fact that they were training well and they competed well for the most part tonight."
From the very beginning, UK seemed poised to do big things.
Audrey Harrison led off on vault with a season-high 9.875, while Hilton (season-high-tying 9.800), Shannon Mitchell (career-high-tying 9.900), Kenzie Hedges (9.850) and Hartley (career-high 9.775) followed with solid scores of their own. As a team, UK scored a season-high 49.200 on the first apparatus.
The Cats sustained the momentum on bars with career highs from Hartley (9.900) and Kayla Sienkowski (9.875). Each good routine seemed to lead into the next.
"Oh, you feed off of it so well," Hartley said. "The person in front of you sets you up and you're just like, 'Yes, here we go. Let's get to it.' "
UK experienced its only setback of the night on beam when Amy Roemmele scored a 9.050. Hilton -- stepping in as the Cats' anchor -- had a chance to erase the score but fell and posted an 8.450.
Beam has been somewhat of a bugaboo this season, as UK has posted its lowest score on the event in five of its last six meets, but the Cats weren't about to be derailed heading into the floor exercise.
"When you struggle on beam--that's what we talked about over there is not letting the energy go down," Garrison said. "In fact, we're going to bring the energy up a notch or two and they responded exactly the way we hoped they would."
Hilton, minutes removed from her disappointing beam routine, got it started.
"We've been having trouble on beam and I think some of the performances, we had to get mad and get it done on floor to bring the team back up again so that we can trust ourselves to know that we can do it," Hilton said.
Bucking the expression, Hilton both got mad and got even by nailing her routine and scoring a career-high 9.925. The tone set, Taylor Puryear, Hedges, Harrison and Hartley followed with career-high scores of their own.
On the strength of all those record-setting performances, UK shattered the school record on floor by 0.200 with a 49.650, which also happens to be the second-highest score in the nation this season.
"To be able to finish the night like that, especially rebounding from a rough beam rotation, we'll take it," Garrison said.
UK -- in command from the first routine onward -- didn't need a floor score nearly that high to defeat the Tigers on this night. The Cats are now 5-1 against Auburn in the last five years with four straight wins in regular-season meets, but that doesn't mean Garrison doesn't appreciate the victory.
"Wins over SEC teams are hard to come by," Garrison said. "So anytime you can get a win over an SEC team you definitely don't take it for granted. And we're not. That's what we talked about to the girls after the meet is, 'Listen, we don't take these for granted because they're hard to come by.' "
Garrison also isn't taking the fact that UK had 12 individual routines that set season or career highs for granted, but that isn't his primary goal either.
"I'm happy for all of our athletes that did break records, but overall as a team I'm pleased that we're moving forward with a great score that we can carry into next Friday, our last home meet, Senior Night," Garrison said. "We're excited to have a big crowd here and finish the home season off with a bang."
Earlier this week, the fourth-year head coach said he wanted to replace four scores in UK's final four meets to bolster his team's Regional Qualifying Score. After Friday, it's one down, three to go.
The clock is ticking on the 2014 gymnastics season.
Just three regular-season meets and the Southeastern Conference Championship remain before NCAA competition and Tim Garrison isn't hiding from that fact.
"We're looking for a big finish to the season, that way we can accomplish our goals," Garrison said. "If we don't have a big finish to the season, we won't accomplish our goals. So we're up against it. They realize it, we know it, we've told them exactly what we need to do and they've embraced it."
The goal for Kentucky is to move into the top 18 of the national rankings for NCAA seeding purposes, meaning the Wildcats need to bolster their Regional Qualifying Score (RQS). To do that, Garrison wants his team to post four scores high enough to replace scores currently counting toward UK's RQS and move up from its current ranking of No. 24.
Some coaches might keep that thinking and the projections that go with it to themselves, but not Garrison. He believes it's best for his athletes to know exactly what's being asked of them.
"I'll put the Excel file up on the big screen in our gym and say, 'Look, here's where we are,' " Garrison said. " 'Here's what we've accomplished to this point. Here's what we need to do to get to where we can achieve our goals.' "
With solid scores of 195.975 and 195.200 last weekend, UK took a step in the right direction. That's especially true for the three Wildcat seniors: Audrey Harrison, Holly Cunningham and Kayla Sienkowski.
"I think obviously we still have places that we can improve," Garrison said. "It's nice to see our seniors come out of a little bit of a slump they were in. They've gone through quite a bit of a struggle but I think the struggle has made them stronger."
Garrison put a fair amount of thought into the reasons for the seniors' slump. He's come to the conclusion that the sense of urgency felt in their final college season got to them.
"Maybe they've already checked out and they've moved on or maybe they're feeling pressure," Garrison said. "I think our athletes were feeling the pressure. I think our seniors were feeling the pressure. I think they've gotten through that."
Over those issues and enjoying a renewed sense of confidence, the seniors are leading the way as the Cats have begun to take control of their own destiny.
"It's always great when you can feel like your athletes are becoming basically autonomous," Garrison said. "They go on their own. Obviously we're driving them, we're pushing them, we're coaching them, but when they're taking those corrections that you've been giving them for many months now and then doing them on their own, it's a good feeling to know that they're feeling more confident in themselves."
UK will look to put that confidence on display. After returning from a rare two-meet road weekend, the Cats are home the next two weekends, beginning at 7 p.m. ET on Friday against No. 11 Auburn.
"Naturally, it's nice to be in comfortable surroundings back on our home floor in front of the Big Blue Nation again," Garrison said.
Back in the friendly confines of Memorial Coliseum, the Cats will be out to finish with a flourish.
"Toward the end of the season, I expect them to perform better because they've realized what's going on, they've dealt with it," Garrison said. "They've realized, 'What's the point in feeling the pressure? We need to go out there and just do the best we can.' "
Audrey Harrison's season-best all-around score of 39.225 highlighted UK's season-high 195.450 against top-ranked Florida. (Aaron Borton, UK Athletics)
Holly Cunningham was pretty sure what was in store on Monday.
Kentucky was just two days removed from a season-low score in a meet at Georgia, the kind of effort that simply hasn't happened during Tim Garrison's time as head coach.
Practice, she figured, wasn't going to be any fun at all.
"We had one of our worst meets ever and we were expecting to come into the gym and for it to be really hard and for him to really mad at us," Cunningham said.
Cunningham was wrong, a pleasant surprise to her and her teammates.
Garrison decided the Wildcats didn't need a drill sergeant. They didn't need to be told the performance wasn't good enough because they were perfectly aware already.
"I think every athlete, every coach at some point has to have amnesia and I think that's what we needed to do because that wasn't a representation of what our team is," Garrison said. "It's not what we're about, it's not the way we train, it's not the way we compete, speaking of last week."
With that in mind, Garrison and his coaching staff took a positive tone as the Cats prepared to host No. 1 Florida.
"You don't know what to expect after a bad meet, but all the coaches know we're so much better than that and we just need to believe in ourselves," Audrey Harrison said.
The approach worked, as UK posted a season-high score of 195.450 on Friday night in Memorial Coliseum.
"We definitely didn't have a perfect meet, but if someone did wobble they tried to save every tenth," Harrison said. "I saw a lot of fight and excitement and positivity."
It started on vault, UK's opening event.
Showing no signs of a hangover from last Saturday, the Cats opened with five solid scores. Stepping to the runway as the anchor for her only routine of the evening, Cunningham executed and stuck her landing for a season-high score of 9.850 to give her team a season-high score of its own, 49.000.
"She did what she was capable of," Garrison said before pausing to think. "Actually, I think she's got a little bit more in the bag. She can make that thing a little bit better, but at least she stuck the landing and that's what we're looking for. Last person on vault, bringing it home for the team, getting ready to move to the second event, we need somebody to make a statement and she did that for us."
UK rode the momentum to solid scores on the bars and beam, as gymnasts refused to let minor mistakes turn into major missteps, save for Shelby Hilton's fall on beam. But even then, Marissa Beucler and Harrison picked up their teammate with good routines.
"That was huge for us," Garrison said. "Not that we wanted the mistake to happen, but the fact that it happened and the fact that two athletes immediately after her corrected that, that was huge for us to see moving forward."
Finishing up the night on floor, the Cats posted four scores of 9.800 or better. Included in that group is Harrison, who closed out a season-high all-around score of 39.225 with a 9.825 on floor.
"Being a senior and the fact that she means so much to this program in the gym and also in the classroom, she's just a stellar person," Garrison said. "To have her come out and compete a good, solid all-around, she struggled the last couple weeks, to have her turn that around at home in front of her fans was really exciting to see."
UK's season-best score wasn't enough to take down the defending national champion Gators, who tallied a 197.175. Though he noticed Bridget Sloan's perfect 10.000 on beam en route to an all-around title, Garrison wasn't all that concerned with Florida.
"We want to be seeded for the first time in University of Kentucky gymnastics history, which means top 18 in the country after SECs to give ourselves a chance to make it national championships," Garrison said. "We really weren't worried a whole lot about what they were doing. We were running our own race tonight."
In running their own race, Garrison said the Cats "made progress" Friday night.
It was around this time last season when UK hit its stride and began shattering program records. Garrison can see a similar stretch around the corner if his team keeps up the work.
"What tells me that more anything else is what I see in the gym," Garrison said. "So now we're getting more comfortable. We've been in a competitive environment five times now. We're starting to get more comfortable in the gym. What I'm seeing in the gym is going to come through more and more on the competition floor, whether we're home or away."
All-around champion Audrey Harrison led UK to an Excite Night win on Friday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
With nerves rattling and his Kentucky gymnastics team still very much still a work in progress, Tim Garrison knew Excite Night wouldn't go perfectly.
Hosting the season's first meet, that was actually the point.
"What we wanted to see was fight, grit," Garrison said. "If they struggled to not let it affect them. And that's exactly what we saw tonight."
It was on display within the first few routines.
UK opened on vault and the second and third Wildcats up -- Kayla Hartley and Shelby Hilton -- posted scores of 9.400 and 9.600, respectively. But rather than let the early disappointment affect them, the Cats responded with solid routines by Shannon Mitchell, Kenzie Hedges and Holly Cunningham.
"They very easily could have put their heads down and given up on them," Garrison said. "They didn't. They took a step forward, pulled their chest up and performed well for the rest of the way."
With vault behind them, the No. 21 Cats went on to take down No. 15 Penn State (193.975), West Virginia (193.700) and Ball State (190.875) in Memorial Coliseum. The 5,839 fans in attendance loved every moment, from pre-meet festivities to the final routine on floor.
"It was electric," Garrison said. "It was a fun night. When one of our athletes would hit a landing, the whole place would just go crazy. That's what we want to bring back three weeks from now when we come back and compete here."
UK's final score initially came in at 194.900, but an inquiry into two different starting scores yielded an extra tenth of a point and gave the Cats a 195.000, as well as a psychological boost.
"It makes a big difference hearing 194, even if it's a 194.9, to a 195 because we wanted to at least get a 195,"Audrey Harrison said. "It wasn't our best at all, but it's definitely good start."
Harrison won her 12th-career all-around title on Friday with a 39.075, turning in a performance representative of her team's. She was disappointed in her bar routine after she scored a 9.700, but was undeterred. She followed it up with a 9.850 on beam and a 9.825 on floor, her two best scores of the night.
"Tim was telling us at the end and all throughout that he liked the fight because we didn't give away anything," Harrison said. "Someone could have fallen but they didn't and they saved it. We saw that on each event where people were trying not to give away anything to get the highest score possible."
Though Harrison was in a familiar role as UK's top all-arounder, many of her teammates found themselves in new positions.
Hilton competed in all-around for the first time as a Wildcat, scoring a 38.700. She will surely post higher scores as the season goes on, but Garrison called her effort "special" nonetheless. Mitchell, meanwhile, had a 9.725 in her first vault routine and true freshman Montana Whittle a 9.775 on bars, her first college routine.
"It's just a good experience," Harrison said. "We had a lot of new people out there tonight, so having this meet under their belt's going to help. We're just to take that excitement, keep the fight and then just give away even less next time."
Throughout the offseason, Garrison has said he wants consistency to be the hallmark of his team. In terms of technique, the Cats aren't there yet. But as they prepare for arguably the nation's toughest schedule, their approach is looking good.
"We were consistent because we were consistently fighting," Garrison said. "We didn't hit everything. It was definitely not a flawless night, but it was a night where we were able to come back from subtle mistakes that were made and make a good show of it."