Danna Durante's 11th-ranked Georgia Gym Dogs had their breakout meet last week with a 196.975 score in a win over Kentucky, but this week marked the beginning of the most difficult gauntlet on the schedule, with 3 consecutive away meets, two of which are against top-ranked competition. They began that gauntlet with a foray into Gainesville, FL, to meet the #3-ranked Florida Gators. (Florida had been ranked #1 until this week, following a lackluster showing in Tuscaloosa against the Gym Tide.)
The large crowd at the O'Connell Center in Gainesville was raucous and suitably hostile to the visiting Bulldogs (and I wouldn't have it any other way) as the Dawgs started on the uneven bars. Kiera Brown led the way with a huge 9.925 and Brandie Jay carded a 9.90. Brittany Rogers had a fantastic routine going... right up until she ended up on all fours on her dismount (her 9.35 was the dropped score, though, thankfully). Overall, the ladies had a very solid bars rotation and only had to count 1 score below 9.8 enroute to a 49.250 to start off the night. Unfortunately, Florida had an even better vault rotation, tallying a 49.300 to end the first rotation with a narrow lead.
(As an aside, the SEC Network's #1 gymnastics announcing team of former Olympic medalists Bart Conner and Kathy Johnson Clarke are awesome. They're exactly what I want to hear when I'm watching SEC gymnastics... enthusiastic and eminently knowledgeable about the sport, but not soft, and not prone to glossing over routines that are obviously lacking or full of mistakes. The crew that called the first two UGA home meets on the streaming-only SEC Network+ were exactly the opposite, and the lead announcer (I don't recall his name) seemed like he didn't even really understand how the sport works. The team of Conner and Clarke are every bit as fantastic as a broadcaster you'd see announcing the world championships or an Olympics where they actually put gymnasts behind the mic, which is exactly the level of broadcasting talent that SEC gymnastics deserves. Kudos to the SEC Network for totally "sticking the landing" with Conner and Clarke.)
In the second rotation, the Gym Dogs and the Gators switched apparatuses, with the Dawgs going to vault. Brandie Jay continued pressing her claim as the undisputed best gymnast on the 2015 team with a superb 9.925, and while the rest of the squad did very well, there was quite a bit of room for additional polishing and tightening up of the vaults. Overall, the landings were very good, which is normally the signal of a great rotation, but the issues in this round were more with things like height off the vault table and alignment (not being straight) in the air. Still, though, we didn't have to count a score lower than 9.80 as Danna's Dawgs put up a very respectable 49.20. Once again, though, Florida had a bars rotation that was just little bit better and more polished all around, which culminated in a 49.375 score on bars.
At "halftime," the Gym Dogs trailed the Gators with a 98.450 to the Saurians' 98.675. It was certainly not an insurmountable lead by any stretch of the imagination, but going into the meet, one had to think that our best apparatuses were in the first half and the Gators' best were in the second half. So if we were going to pull off the upset, one would think we would need to be ahead by a good margin at halftime. That logic would, unfortunately, prove to be correct.
For the third rotation, Georgia performed on the floor. Brandie Jay finished her amazing day with a 9.925 for her 3rd routine of 9.9 or more on the day. Mary Beth Box also came up big with a 9.90, and we only had to count 1 score lower than a 9.80 (Broussard's 9.775) enroute to a team total of 49.250. Florida had a fall on beam, but was able to drop that score as they posted a 49.325 for their third rotation.
Going into the final rotation, the Gators led the Dawgs 148.000-147.700. Again, not an insurmountable lead, but Florida's strongest rotation has always been the floor exercise, and the beam is usually our weakest, so we pretty much knew how this one was going to end. I have to say that the ladies that wear the red and black were just as focused and determined as they were last week, however, and they came out and absolutely attacked the balance beam with a vengeance. Nobody fell, and Ashlyn Broussard carded a 9.95 along with Mary Beth Box tallying a 9.90. The Gym Dogs put up a very solid 49.250 in their final rotation to arrive at their final score of 196.950. Florida, as usual had their best rotation on the floor, putting up a massive 49.550 as they reached their final score of 197.600.
At the end of the day, Georgia lost to Florida with a 196.950 to UF's 197.600. And to be honest, the score was a fair reflection of the differences between the two teams. Florida isn't a team that's light years better than Georgia. On this night, they were simply more polished and tighter on most of their routines down the line than we consistently were on ours. (With the exception of floor, where we just didn't attempt the highest-difficulty tumbling passes.) And we put up this very solid 196.950 score in a hostile SEC road environment, too, which is encouraging. Just as in every sport that draws big crowds, it's extremely hard to win on the road in the SEC. My net takeaway from the meet tonight is that we're still on the right path. We're probably not at the very top level yet, but we're in the neighborhood, and we're working to get there. I'm ok with that, as it represents continued progress on Danna Durante's part in taking Georgia back to the place it belongs... the national championship platform.
Also, at this point, we can't focus on our ranking too much. The rankings are based on a mathematical average of all your meet scores, and we've shot it all to hell with our first 3 meets. (This is slightly less true for the actual RQS that will be used at the end of the year for NCAA seedings, which gives you a little extra value for putting up high scores on the road, as we did today, but we'll talk more about that later in the season, when and if it becomes relevant.) What we have to focus on now is how the ladies are currently doing, and whether they can keep pace with what the rest of the elite programs are doing week to week. And we've accomplished that task in each of the last two weeks. We're keeping pace and continuing to get more consistent. That's what I want to see at this point in the season.
If I'm being honest with myself, I can't say that based on what we've seen so far, we have a legitimate expectation of winning the national championship. After this weekend, every team currently in the top 6 has had at least one score at or above 197.300, and that's 3 tenths higher than our highest score so far. Still, there's potential there, and making the Super Six is still our first goal. Once you're in the Super Six, anything can happen in that final meet. Thankfully, our ladies have shown us over the last two weeks that they're capable of getting there. Now we just need to keep improving and make it happen.
The Gym Dogs' next meet will be this Friday, February 6, against D-D Breaux's #2-ranked LSU squad in Baton Rouge. The meet will start at 8:00 Eastern time and will be televised live on the SEC Network.