The Gym Dogs, one of seven S.E.C. squads ranked in the top 26 and one of four S.E.C. squads ranked in the top four, drew the balance beam in the first rotation of the conference championships in Little Rock, Ark., on Saturday night.
Led by 9.9s from Katie Heenan and Tiffany Tolnay, the Red and Black posted a 49.375, which was the high score of the meet's opening round. Trailing Georgia were Florida (49.3 in the vault), Kentucky (48.975 in the floor exercise), and L.S.U. (48.925 on the uneven bars). Alabama, Arkansas, and Auburn all had byes, which, incredibly enough, were distributed randomly rather than alphabetically.
The Red and Black were among the three teams with second-round byes. During that rotation, Alabama posted a 49.275 mark on the floor, Arkansas claimed a 49 tally in the vault, Auburn registered a 48.675 on the bars, and L.S.U. recorded a 48.575 on the beam.
The Gym Dogs were back in action in the third rotation, in which Georgia drew the floor exercise. Three of the Red and Black's six competing gymnasts received scores of 9.725 or below, but Courtney Kupets's 9.875 and Katie Heenan's 9.9 bolstered the Bulldogs' cause, producing a 49.025 score for the rotation. Meanwhile, Florida earned a 49.275 on the bars, Auburn was awarded a 48.175 on the beam, and Kentucky posted a 48.05 in the vault.
Florida is like the Ivan Drago of college gymnastics.
At this juncture, top-ranked Florida held a 98.575-98.4 lead over second-place Georgia, with L.S.U. (97.5), Kentucky (97.025), and Auburn (96.85) trailing. (Alabama and Arkansas already had drawn two byes apiece.) The Gym Dogs had the fourth phase of the meet off, as well, so Suzanne Yoculan's squad watched as Alabama put together a solid 49.25 score in the vault to put the Crimson Tide in second place with an overall 98.525 tally.
Also during the fourth rotation, Arkansas garnered a 48.825 score on the bars to bring the Razorbacks' cumulative mark to 97.825 and L.S.U. received a solid 49.3 in the floor exercise. Ominously, Florida was machine-like on the balance beam, with eerily consistent scores from Katie Rue (9.85), Breanne King (9.875), Melanie Sinclair (9.85), Corey Hartung (9.85), and Ashley Reed (9.875) to post a 49.3.
This brought the Gators' overall score to 147.875 as the Orange and Blue performed with precision: 49.3 in the vault . . . 49.275 on the bars . . . 49.3 on the beam. The only part of Florida's performance that was not chilling for the Georgia faithful was the fact that, in the one event in which both had competed (balance beam), the Gym Dogs had the edge (49.375-49.3).
The meet moved on to the fifth frame and the Red and Black took their turn at the vault. Coach Yoculan's charges went about their task methodically, with 9.825s by Kelsey Ericksen, Ashley Kupets, and Marcia Newby, a 9.9 by Tiffany Tolnay, a 9.95 by Katie Heenan, and a 9.975 by Courtney Kupets giving the Gym Dogs the 49.475 they needed to earn a first-place tie with Florida at 147.875. The fifth rotation also featured performances by Kentucky on the bars (48.45), Auburn on the floor (48.725), and Arkansas on the beam (47.85).
The Gators are like the Borg of college gymnastics.
Georgia's third and final bye came during the sixth rotation, in which Kentucky received a 48.525 on the beam to finish with an overall 194 mark and L.S.U. attained a 49.45 mark in the vault to claim a final score of 196.25. Alabama registered a 49.15 on the bars and Florida posted a daunting 49.45 in the floor exercise.
The Gators were scary good in their methodical execution. Over the course of the four events, three Florida gymnasts scored below a 9.8 and one Florida gymnast scored above a 9.9, with the rest of the Gators' results all falling within that range. This gave the No. 1 Orange and Blue a final mark of 197.325 and let the Gym Dogs know that anything less than the evening's best score on the bars would not be sufficient.
In the final rotation, Alabama claimed a 49.325 on the beam to end up with a third-place 197 for the meet, Arkansas recorded a 48.875 in the floor exercise to capture an overall 194.55, and Auburn posted a 48.9 in the vault to finish at 194.475. The Red and Black were effective on the bars, earning a 9.8 from Nicki Childs, a 9.825 from Kelsey Ericksen, a 9.85 from Katie Heenan, a 9.9 from Tiffany Tolnay, and a 9.925 from Courtney Kupets to record a solid 49.3 in the event . . . but, although the Gym Dogs outperformed the Gators in the vault (49.475-49.3), on the bars (49.3-49.275), and on the beam (49.375-49.3), the Orange and Blue's advantage in the floor exercise (49.45-49.025) was enough to give Florida the win over second-place Georgia (197.325-197.175).
While the runner-up finish was disappointing, the loss was a narrow one to the best team in the land. Coach Yoculan's Gym Dogs will have two weeks within which to prepare for the N.C.A.A. regionals, which begin on April 14.