Welcome, Dawg fans, to another season of University of Georgia gymnastics! For those of you who haven't been steeped in the rich tradition of Georgia's athletic success over the years in things other than football, the women's gymnastics program is arguably the most successful athletics program at UGA. (Only equestrian and maybe tennis can even really come close.)
This is 1/3 of the Gym Dogs' trophy case. The other 2/3 is equally as packed with hardware. (Photo Credit: me)
Since the NCAA began holding women's gymnastics championship competitions in 1982, the Gym Dogs have won 10 team national championships, including 5 straight from 2005-2009, and have produced 40 individual national championships. No other program in the country has won more.
The catch, however, is that all of those team championships came under our legendary, best-of-all-time coach Suzanne Yoculan, who retired after the 2009 season. And all but 3 of the individual national championships came under Yoculan's watch, as well. (And just one gymnast, Kat Ding, accounted for the other 3.) Since Coach Yoculan hung up her stiletto heels in 2009, the Gym Dogs' program has fallen back to the pack of "top-tier" gymnastics programs, and indeed could fairly be said to have fallen to the back of that "top-tier" pack (which includes about 8 or so teams).
When Danna Durante arrived in the Classic City in 2013, the proverbial cupboard was bare, and there was a significant amount of rebuilding work to be done. Over the past 3 years, she has built the program back up class by recruiting class, and now has her first team stocked entirely with her own recruits. And though the 2015 season was nothing less than a major disappointment (partially due to a significant number of injuries to key contributors), this 2016 squad looks like it has the potential to reach great heights, indeed.
So without further ado, let's look at the ladies that will be taking the mat for the University of Georgia this season!
(Listed in alphabetical order by class)
Overall, this is easily the strongest senior class we've had since 2009. All 3 of them were First Team All-Americans last year, and getting consistent performances and strong leadership from all 3 will be vital to getting the kind of results we want this year.
Mary Beth Box (2015 First Team All-American, Floor; 2014 First Team All-American, Beam)
In my opinion, Mary Beth was one of the surprise breakout performers of last season. She'd had a relatively unremarkable freshman campaigns, and her sophomore season was pretty good, but during the 2015 season, she became one of our bedrock performers on balance beam, and her energetic floor exercise routine will knock your socks off. (Personally, I thought she was straight-up robbed of a perfect 10 on floor on at least one occasion last season, if not two.) She will continue to be vital in those areas this season. Also, she's the current "holder of the moonwalk" on beam. (It's been a tradition that one gymnast does the "moonwalk" as part of their routine every year, and the gymnasts pass it down to one another after they graduate. Mary Beth took it over last season.)
Brandie Jay (2015 First Team All-American, Vault; 2014 First Team All-American, Vault & Floor; 2013 First Team All-American, Vault)
Brandie has been one of the biggest stars on this team since the day she walked in the door. She picked up an ankle injury near the end of last season and missed one meet, but carried on like a trooper and still put up solid numbers on that bum ankle. Like in most team sports, our luck with avoiding injuries this season to our best performers will be key, and as long as Brandie stays healthy, it's a safe bet that she'll be one of our best gymnasts week in and week out on vault, bars, and floor.
Brittany Rogers (2015 NCAA Runner-up, Bars; 2015 First Team All-American, Bars; 2014 Second Team All-American, Bars & All-Around, 2013 Second Team All-American, Beam & Bars)
Though probably the only member of the team more highly-touted than Brandie Jay coming into her freshman seasons, Brittany has had more injury difficulties, which especially hampered her last year. She appears to have completely recovered from the last year's injury, however, and even competed for her native Canada at the 2015 World Championships. If the Gym Dogs are going to win a national title in 2016, Brittany Rogers will have to be one of the stars of the team. Up until last year, Brittany was the only all-around competitor on the team (competing in every event). I haven't seen any comments yet from Coach Durante on whether Rogers will be able to resume her all-around duties this year, but I really don't want her to be spread too thin. If she can do the all-around at a high level, that's great... but we'll need her to be one of the best we've got on vault, bars, and beam, so if that's where she needs to focus, I'm cool with it.
Of the three returning classes, it would be fair to say the Juniors are, so far, the least-accomplished as a group. Still, though, there are at least 3 solid contributors from last year returning, and if past history is any guide, we might just see a breakout performer or two that becomes a major, consistent contributor for the team.
Ashlyn really blossomed last year into one of the best gymnasts in this class. She became one of our most consistent performers on vault, and was a fighter on the beam, though she tended to be inconsistent at times. (To be fair, though, that could be said of our entire team on the balance beam last year.) She also started out competing on floor last year, but was pulled from that event after several underwhelming performances. If she can take her vault scores up another notch and become a more consistent performer on beam, I think that'll be exactly what we need from her this year.
Lauren suffered a torn ACL and missed the entire 2015 season. During her freshman season in 2014, though, she stepped in for an injured Noel Couch in the postseason and actually won the SEC individual vault title, and carded a 9.90 in the Super Six that year. ACL injuries are notoriously difficult to fully return from, but if Lauren can regain her form on vault, that would be a great addition for the team.
The only Athens native on the team, Morgan was still recovering from an injury early last season, but returned to be a regular contributor on beam and floor. If Morgan can stay healthy this year, I think she has the potential to be a real difference-maker on those two events.
Beth hails from Tifton, Georgia, making her the only south Georgia girl on the team. That's a point of pride for certain members of Bulldog Nation who originally hail from that region of the state (/dusts off shoulders). With that said, however, Beth didn't get into any competitions her freshman year, and she only competed on vault in about half of our meets last year. And her scores... how do I say this politely... well, they were usually the ones we dropped (or wish we could have dropped if someone else hadn't fallen).
Rachel showed a lot of promise last year on the uneven bars, but broke her thumb halfway through the season. If she can stay healthy this year, I think she could be a very solid contributor on bars. Consistency is the key, as her scores last year fluctuated between 9.90 and 9.075. The potential is there, though.
If we didn't have such amazing seniors, these sophomores would be the stars of the team. Though many of them suffered with some inconsistency last year as Freshmen, there's a tremendous upside potential for this group.
Jasmine didn't see any competitive action as a freshman, so it's hard to say where she'll see some playing time this year.
Vivi was one of the two highly-touted Canadians with international competitive experience in this class (along with Natalie Vaculik). She put together a relatively solid freshman season, though it always seemed to me like judges kept giving her surprisingly low numbers for her excellent performances, especially on beam. Vivi couldn't buy a 9.9 on beam last year for anything, and in my opinion, her performances were some of the best on the team at times. I don't know, maybe it's the exchange rate thing. For whatever reason, I think Vivi has the potential to be a major contributor in those events again this year.
I'm no expert at these things, but simply from looking at the bios going into last year, Gigi didn't particularly stand out from the rest of the (non-Canadian) freshmen, but she got steadily better and better as the year went on, and she became, in my opinion, one of the best floor routine gymnasts we have. She looked to start a little tentatively to me, but she practically exploded onto the scene starting with the LSU meet, and she was flat-out robbed of a perfect 10 in the Arkansas meet (a 9.95, for the record). She also competed in vault, and might again this year, but Gigi has the potential to be a star on the floor.
Hayley only saw competitive action in one meet last year (Arkansas) on the bars. We'll be looking for another solid contributor on bars this year, so Hayley might be it.
Natalie was the biggest name in last year's freshman class, and she was a relatively solid contributor, though she struggled with consistency, especially on the beam. Also, after competing on vault, bars, and beam in every regular-season meet, Coach Durante surprisingly took Natalie out of the vault rotation for the entire postseason, and out of the beam rotation after the SEC Championships. So she only competed on bars for most of the postseason, after competing in every regular-season meet on vault, bars, and beam. Not sure if Natalie picked up an injury we didn't hear about or if there was another reason, but that was one of the biggest head-scratchers of last season. What we really need this season is for Natalie to have her regular 9.80's look more like 9.85's and 9.9's. She has the tools to do that, I think, and we'll need those kinds of performances from her to put up the big team scores we'll need.
To be honest, we don't really know much about these freshmen yet. But again, if history is any guide, there will probably be at least one solid contributor from the group.
Caroline Bradford (Prarieville, LA) - Her UGA bio doesn't really say what her specialty is.
Gracie Cherrey (Woodbury, MN) - Possible bars, beam, or floor contributor.
Sydney Snead (Raleigh, NC) - Possible vault contributor.
And here's my educated guess on how it might look once we head out onto the floor:
Projected Rotation Lineup:
(6 competitors per event)
Vault: Jay, Rogers, Broussard, Vaculik, Marino, Johnson/Snead
Uneven Bars: Jay, Rogers, Vaculik, Schick, Sanders, Bradford/Cherrey/Snead
Balance Beam: Box, Broussard, Rogers, Vaculik, Babalis, Reynolds
Floor: Box, Jay, Marino, Babalis, Reynolds, Rogers/Broussard/Bradford/Cherrey
Of course, that's just one fan's guess... Danna Durante has shown quite a proclivity for tinkering with lineups throughout the entire season, even deep into the season. So I'm sure the lineups will change as time goes on.
As far as the season itself goes, this year's schedule is a bit of an outlier. The Gym Dogs only have 5 home meets this year, and 4 out of our first 5 meets are on the road, which is quite unusual for us. Normally, we get 6 or 7 home meets a year, and we haven't had a season with only 5 home meets since 1999. (Of course, we won the national championship in 1999, so that doesn't have to be a limiting factor in setting our season goals.) I suspect this is offset in Greg McGarity's mind by the fact that Athens will be hosting a NCAA regional competition this year, and Georgia is guaranteed to be in the Athens regional as long as we have a sufficient qualifying score, so that kind of counts as a 6th home meet. (Though UGA won't be getting the ticket revenues for that meet... the NCAA will.) So with only 1 home meet in the month of January, it's going to feel like a long time before we actually get to see the Gym Dogs take the mat in person this season.
Fortunately, with the advent of the conference television networks and online streaming packages, we'll still be able to see most of the Gym Dogs' competitions, even if they aren't in Athens. This includes the first meet of the year, which will be streamed live (for free) at Michigan's website.
So those are the basics for our Gym Dogs team this season. As usual, expectations are high, but that's not something for which we should be ashamed or attempt to downplay. As T. Kyle King, the founder of this blog, used to say, Georgia is to gymnastics what Alabama is to football. Unlike other teams who play their games in Stegeman Coliseum, the Gym Dogs don't hang banners simply for making the NCAA tournament. We only hang banners for championships, and that speaks to our level of expectation in this program. Being part of the dance every year is an assumption. The goal for the Gym Dogs, every year, should be to win the national championship. Up until this season, those goals, while valid, could fairly be said to have been rather unreachable, given the talent on hand across the entire team. Now, Coach Durante has an entire roster, from top to bottom, of her own recruits. Her first set of freshmen have turned into top-caliber seniors, and all of the other classes have top contributors (or the potential for such), as well.
Now is the time. 2016 is the year. The Gym Dogs have been stuck in mediocrity for too long. The pieces are in place, and now our ladies need to go make it happen. Just like always, it's national championship or bust for the Gym Dogs. This year, however, it actually feels like a reasonable goal.
Danna's Dawgs will open the 2016 campaign this Saturday in Ann Arbor against the Michigan Wolverines. The meet will start at 4:00 PM Eastern time, and will be streamed live (for free) at the Michigan athletics website. Here is the link for the live video stream, and the live scoring link can be found here (also at the Michigan website).
I'll have a recap after the meet, so until then...