On Saturday, the Gym Dogs will travel to Fort Worth for the Metroplex Challenge, in which No. 9 Georgia will be the third-highest ranked team among a field that includes No. 2 Oklahoma, No. 7 LSU, No. 16 Oregon State, and unranked Washington (where Danna Durante twice was recognized as the regional coach of the year during a five-year stint as an assistant). Including a 2013 season-opening loss to the Sooners, the Red and Black are 105-23-3 all-time against those four opponents.
This weekend’s meet represents a golden opportunity for the Gym Dogs to reassert themselves as a fixture among the national elite, and this program is desperate for success after the Jay Clark era, which, at best, could be characterized as a moderately mitigated disaster. In three years at the helm in the Classic City, Coach Clark guided his gymnastics teams to more losses (28) than Suzanne Yoculan sustained in her last eight campaigns (26). Coach Yoculan closed out her unparalleled career with 24 consecutive top five finishes at the NCAA Championships, but Coach Clark never managed better than a ninth-place tie to conclude the year.
Bulldog fans were given cause for hope by Monday’s demolition of Stanford, but caution is called for under the circumstances. While a 197.0 score is nothing at which to sniff, the last two meets at which Georgia topped that tally---in the 2012 season-ender against N.C. State and at the subsequent Auburn Regional---were followed by a third-place finish at the SEC Championships and a career-ending collapse in the Gwinnett Center, respectively.
It certainly appears that, in Coach Durante, Greg McGarity found the right woman for the job. In her single season as the head coach at the University of California, the Golden Bears’ average score improved by nearly a full point over the previous year and Cal gymnasts set 23 personal bests as the team carded its highest overall score in five years. Everything appears to be pointed in the right direction, but what will it take for the Gym Dogs to return to the Super Six this season? In my opinion, the Red and Black must do three things to get back where they belong this year:
1. Improve on the beam and in the floor exercise. Through last Friday’s meet, Georgia was the country’s fifth-best squad in the vault and on the uneven bars, but just the country’s twelfth-best team on the balance beam and 29th-best team in the floor exercise. Monday produced a positive development in the Gym Dogs’ weakest event, as the Red and Black posted a season-high 49.375 on the floor against the Cardinal, and, although the Athenians were shakiest on the beam against Stanford, Georgia generally has performed consistently on that apparatus. Add to that the fact that Coach Durante served as the beam coach and was in charge of floor choreography as an assistant coach at both Washington and Nebraska, and the probability is high that scores will improve in these two areas to match the high marks already being earned on the bars and the vault.
2. Get everyone healthy. Sophomore Chelsea Davis, who underwent preseason knee surgery, has been steady, and steadily improving, on the bars so far this season. She posted solid scores on that apparatus in the first two meets (9.85 and 9.875) before earning even better marks (9.9 and 9.95) in the last two. Likewise, after registering vault scores of 9.625 and 9.775 in two of the winter’s first three competitions, Davis notched a 9.85 in the event against Stanford. The Gym Dogs’ most critical injury, though, was to senior Noel Couch, whose broken thumb likely will sideline her until early February. Couch’s return cannot come soon enough for the Athenians’ chances.
3. Continue developing the freshmen. First-year collegians Brandie Jay and Brittany Rogers already have been impressive, but both have had growing pains. Jay opened the campaign with a 9.175 and a 9.6 in her first two floor exercises before recording a season-high 9.875 in the event against Auburn. Jay has been rock-solid in the vault all winter, culminating in a season-best 9.9 on that apparatus on Monday, when she matched that mark on the bars, as well. Rogers has struggled on the balance beam, carding three scores of 9.625 or worse, and she has yet to earn better than a 9.75 in the event as a collegian. However, Rogers has been reliable on the bars and on the vault, matching her season-high 9.875 in the former and establishing a new season-best 9.9 in the latter against Stanford. Both freshmen are stars in the making, and Couch’s return likely will take some of the pressure off of Jay and Rogers as they continue on their upward trajectories.
Indications are that the Gym Dogs’ recent uptick represents neither a short-lived surge of the sort that typified Billy Martin’s New York Yankee teams nor a “dead cat bounce,” but instead a legitimate, and sustainable, resurgence based on coaching, talent, and increasing consistency as young gymnasts are developed into more complete competitors and upperclassmen return to health. The next few meets may tell the tale, but signs are promising that the new Georgia coach who had the wisdom to consult the greatest Georgia coach will succeed in restoring the sport’s most storied program to its rightful place atop the pyramid.