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Gym Dogs Break Out, Defeat Kentucky 196.975 - 194.225

Now this is what I'm talkin' about.

Freshman Natalie Vaculik with an intense focus that was typical of all of the Gym Dogs' performances tonight.
Freshman Natalie Vaculik with an intense focus that was typical of all of the Gym Dogs' performances tonight.
UGA Sports Communications/Sean Taylor

After the first 3 meets of the year ended with less and less favorable results, we Gym Dog fans were (quite rightly) wailing and gnashing our teeth.  And the Gym Dogs themselves admitted that they felt the pressure, too... even going so far as to hold a "players only" meeting on Friday with just the gymnasts to set things in order. Then, in the locker room before the meet, coach Danna Durante asked her ladies, "Are you just a bunch of pretty girls that don't know how to fight?"

Well, we found out tonight.  The Gym Dogs might also be a bunch of pretty girls... but they showed us that they know how to fight as they put up a season-high 196.975, thrashing the #14 Kentucky Wildcats in front of a(nother) sold-out Stegeman Coliseum crowd.  We had seen glimpses through the inconsistencies in the first 3 meets, and tonight, with the help of a healthy Brittany Rogers, Danna's Dawgs finally were able to put it all together.

As usual for a home meet, Georgia started out on vault. We had a very strong showing, too, as both Brandie Jay and Ashlyn Broussard carded 9.90's. Brittany Rogers, who had been sidelined to this point while recovering from an achilles injury, also made her first vault of the season, scoring a 9.85.  The best part, though, was that as soon as she landed, the camera was right on her face, and you could see in her eyes that she was overjoyed to finally be back out in front of the Bulldog faithful, and she was rewarded with roars of approval from the crowd. Overall, the Dawgs didn't have to count a score lower than 9.80 as they tallied a 49.250 on the vault.  Kentucky started on bars and carded a 48.900.

For the second rotation, UGA moved to bars and Kentucky to vault. Once again, we had strong rotations all across the board, with exactly zero scores below 9.80. (And the lone 9.8 was the score we dropped.)  Brittany Rogers proved to everyone she was back, though, with her massive bars routine that one judge rated a perfect 10.  Unfortunately, the Soviet judge only thought it was a 9.95, so Rogers and the raucous Georgia crowd had to "settle" for a 9.975 score.  Still, it was exactly what we've been needing, and it was awesome to see Brittany teeing it up on bars just like we've seen her do for the previous 2 years. The Gym Dogs absolutely blew the bars out of the water, tallying a 49.35 on the rotation, which was to be our high rotation of the night.

Unfortunately, Kentucky had a major injury during their second rotation on vault, as Khadijah Hudson landed very awkwardly and appeared to seriously injure her knee on her landing. And this was after their 3-event competitor Alexis Gross also blew out her knee during pre-meet warmups on vault.  I'm sure all UGA fans will join me in expressing our sympathies to Khadijah and Alexis and wishes for a speedy recovery. Nobody wants to see a fellow competitor go down like that, much less two competitors.  Still, I have to give the Wildcats credit for pulling together as a team and scoring a respectable 48.775 for their second rotation.

At "halftime," the Gym Dogs had a commanding 98.600 - 97.675 lead.  Of course, we could all be excused for holding our breath as Danna's Dawgs next moved to their old nemesis, the balance beam.  It was upon the unforgiving 4-inch platform that we were plunged into disaster last week, and it was that which we feared might have emotionally compromised our team for the future.

Coach Danna Durante made some changes to the lineup this week for beam, as well, with senior Sarah Persinger leading off.  And although Sarah didn't fall, she did have two separate "did everything except actually fall" moments in her routine, as she led off with a 9.35. (It was at this point that Vineyarddawg reached for the Mylanta, for the record.)  Fortunately, the Gym Dogs showed more intestinal fortitude than Vineyarddawg's intestines did, as all 5 subsequent performers put in solid routines, and none even came close to falling or having major balance checks. Mary Beth Box anchored the rotation and had the highest score with a 9.875. After the foibles that have troubled this team on beam, and after a senior stalwart led off with a fall-in-all-but-name, this team showed the most strength and resiliency that I've seen from them all season in salvaging a 49.100 for the third rotation. It was technically our lowest rotation score of the night, but it was the biggest score qualitatively, and you could almost visibly see the tension lift from everybody's shoulders as Mary Beth stuck her landing and her team surrounded her with cheers. Kentucky was on floor in the third rotation and carded a 48.825.

Going into the final rotation on floor, we knew we had the meet secure as long as we took care of business on the floor.  And if we were able to put together a 49.3 or better on floor, we'd even be able to eclipse the 197 mark, which would be exceptional for this early point in the season.  Once again, every Gym Dog put in a very solid routine, with the exception of Persinger who wiped out on her second pass, and we didn't have to count a score lower than 9.80.  And in the anchor spot, Brandie Jay put the exclamation mark on the Dawgs' "welcome back" party with a  9.925. We fell just 25 thousandths of a point shy of that magic 49.3 mark, but I'm going to chalk that up to the Soviet judge just being the Soviet judge.  Danna's Dawgs carded a 49.275 on floor to arrive at the final team number of 196.975.  Kentucky had a rough rotation on beam and had to count a fall, tallying 47.725 to arrive at their final number of 194.225.

It is difficult for me to find the words to express how proud I am of this squad.  These ladies had a major, major setback just 5 days ago, and they came out tonight with that fighting spirit that wouldn't quit and brought the big score home. If one wanted to be cynical, you could look around the SEC and see a lot of other teams scoring in the 197+ range on this weekend and get grouchy about the fact that we still probably won't rise into the top 6 in the rankings (yet), but such a stance would be incredibly short-sighted.  We faced some major adversity, and these ladies showed the mental toughness it takes to get back up, dust yourself off, and once again attack with incredible intensity and focus.

Coach Durante, what did you think about this display?

We told the team all week, what happened the last three meets doesn't matter. We've got nine meets ahead of us and it's a clean slate starting on Saturday. Every day we talked about battling, fighting, having courage, because this team trains well but they had not competed well. And today was significantly better in that respect. There's still more to do, we still left things out there, but it was just good to see them have courage and fight out there today.

Right on, coach... couldn't have said it better myself.  And regarding our performances on beam and floor:

They're still things we need to do better. Switching lineups a little bit and having Brittany [Rogers] back was a huge plus. And I think having some depth out there they felt, "Okay I can't get complacent. If I'm in the top six, that doesn't mean that No. 7 isn't going to push and take my spot if I don't keep working and getting better"

These are the Gym Dogs I've been waiting to see.  And personally, I'm excited to see where they'll go from here. And whoo boy, do we have some places to go from here.

Georgia's next meet will be against the #1 Florida Gators in Gainesville on Friday, 1/30, at 6:45 PM, and will be televised live on the SEC Network.  (That's the real, TV SEC Network, not just the streaming-only SEC Network+ that we've seen so far.)  Y'all might know that I have certain feelings that are felt with the fire of a thousand suns being fueled by the fire of an additional thousand suns as it relates to the Sunshine State Saurians, and they're the two-time defending national champions.  In fairness, it might be asking a little much to take down the Gators on the road this Friday. But then again, tonight's score by the Gym Dogs would have defeated the Gators in 2 out of the 3 meets they've contested so far this year.  So, who knows?  I guess we'll have to tune in on Friday night and find out!

Go Dawgs!  Beat Florida!