After a thoroughly forgettable season-opening meet last week in Ann Arbor, Danna Durante's #15-ranked Gym Dogs bounced back solidly on Friday night in Fayetteville, Arkansas, against the #16-ranked Arkansas Gym Backs, earning their first win of the season. The final score of 196.775 was a solid early-season result, and if we can keep building off of this performance, there's a lot of upside for these Dawgs in 2016.
As usual for the visiting team, the Gym Dogs started the night on the uneven bars, with Arkansas starting on vault. We had some solid performances from a couple of ladies who had an off week last week, especially Rachel Schick, who had, to my eyes, the best bars performance of her career. Amazingly, the judges only saw fit to award her a 9.825, which probably means the camera angles didn't show us a few missed lines for her or something, because it looked like a 9.9-worthy performance to me. As it was, though, Brittany Rogers gave us our first 9.90 of the evening, and we didn't have to count a score lower than 9.80 enroute to a first rotation team score of 49.20. Arkansas turned in a subpar 48.975 on the vault, and we had a nice cushion to start the meet (which we would need).
On the second rotation, Danna's Dawgs swapped apparatuses with the Gym Backs, moving to vault while the home team competed on the bars. And this vault rotation was exactly the kind of performance we hope to see week in and week out from these ladies. Senior star Brandie Jay carded a near-perfect 9.95, and in my opinion, Gigi Marino was robbed of a 9.90, as well, getting awarded only a 9.875 by the judges for another near-flawless performance. Overall, nearly every Gym Dog stuck their landing, which is absolutely crucial in vault, and we didn't have to count a score lower than 9.825 as the Dawgs tallied a 49.375 on their vault rotation. That's almost postseason form, y'all. A great vault rotation from the ladies tonight. Arkansas turned in a strong bars rotation of 49.25, and the good
guys gals headed into "halftime" with a 98.575-98.225 lead.
With a nice little cushion to work with, the Dawgs went onto the third rotation on floor exercise, while Arkansas went to the balance beam. Normally, this is where most teams really pad their scores, but floor always seems to be a challenge of consistency for us, and tonight was no exception. Combined with a specious judging effort for Gigi Marino and Brandie Jay, both of whom deserved 9.9's, but neither of whom received them, Georgia only tallied a team total of 49.100 on floor, led by Jay's team-high score of 9.875. That's not horrible, mind you, but floor is where you can really rack up the big scores. And we had a few stumbles, causing us to have to count a 9.75 and 9.775, but there were no major errors, really. Just tweaks and tightening up of routines that need to be done. Landings that need to be made better, rotations in the air that need to be tighter, jumps that could be higher... that kind of thing. (And Danna Durante likes keeping the difficulty levels on the floor tumbling passes low early in the season, only to insert the harder stuff later, which I don't totally agree with, but it is what it is.) Also, the TV announcers informed us that sophomore Vivi Babalis has been fighting an elbow injury, which explains some of the challenges she's been having in this young season, despite the fact that, to my eyes, her showmanship-type work has really gotten a lot better this year, both on floor and beam.
On Arkansas' third rotation, they put in a very strong 49.200 on beam, and Vineyarddawg started to get nervous, since it's never a good sign when your opponent scores higher on beam than you do on floor. Nevertheless, Georgia had a 147.675-147.425 lead going into the final rotation of the night. Still, with Arkansas going to the floor and UGA going to the dreaded balance beam (or "Satan's apparatus," as Poseur, my colleague from LSU's SB Nation blog And The Valley Shook, likes to call it)... no Gym Dog fan should have been overly confident in our prospects. Hopeful, perhaps... but not confident.
So on to the balance beam we went. Fortunately, we made solid progress after last week's dismal beam work. Ashlyn Broussard, in particular, put up a great first routine, carding a 9.875 and redeeming herself after her fall in Michigan. It always helps the team's confidence when your first performer nails a great performance on the beam. Unfortunately, we had a bad couple of bobbles from Vivi Babalis, and freshman Grace Cherrey fell for the second time in as many meets. (After such a slow start, she might get shuffled out of the rotation as soon as the next meet, I'd guess.) The rest of the ladies gutted it out and put in strong performances, however, which were capped by Brittany Rogers' 9.90 in the penultimate spot and Mary Beth Box's anchor routine, which was just as good as Rogers', but for some reason was only worth a 9.875 in the judges' eyes. Our seniors really put in an inspiring show of leadership on this rotation, keeping it together and putting up big scores exactly when we needed them. Great job on their part, and it's an encouraging sign as we look forward to the rest of the year. A gutsy performance like this on beam can be a real confidence-booster for this squad if they can continue to improve. When the dust settled, the Gym Dogs carded a 49.1 on their final rotation, leading to their final team score of 196.775. Arkansas failed to capitalize on the opening we provided them, and the few stumbles on their floor routines were enough to give the Dawgs the victory by 75 thousandths of a point.
The team vs. team competitive aspect is, in the long-term view of the season, not really as important, but in some ways it's extremely important in the short-term in helping to build the confidence of this team. At the end of the season, only your raw scores will matter, not which teams you beat or lost to. And tonight, more than anything else, it was ultimately the vault rotation that decided the meet. Our excellent vault rotation earned us the victory, and the Gym Backs' subpar vaults, more than anything else, cost them the loss. Still, a 196.775 is the kind of early season score we can build on, and it always feels good to get a win in another team's gym. So this was a good night for Danna's Dawgs, and I'm hoping it will serve as a stepping stone to even greater heights. I'm very encouraged that our seniors Brandie Jay, Brittany Rogers, and Mary Beth Box really seem to be starting to step into their roles as the big-time leaders of this team. That's a great sign, and we need to keep it up.
The Gym Dogs have a short turnaround, coming back to Athens for their first home meet of the season on Monday. Since it's the MLK holiday, Danna's Dawgs will be taking the mat with a holiday start time of 2:00 PM against the 22nd-ranked Stanford Cardinal. This will be the Dawgs' only home meet in the month of January, so if you want to come out and cheer on your Gym Dogs in person before February rolls around, you need to get out to the Steg on Monday afternoon!
If you're unable to make it to the Classic City in person, the meet will be streamed live at ESPN3.com (through the SEC Network+ online streaming service), and live scoring updates will be available for free at the UGA website. Until then...