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."
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.
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.' "