It’s that time of year folks, when Dawg Sports turns primarily into a gymnastics blog. We will still cover football recruiting, and hopefully we continue to have some Georgia Hoop Hounds excitement. Then of course bourbon and barbecue are pervasive topics. And country club sports as the weather warms. So really, as usual, anything goes.
But with 10 national championships, the Georgia Women’s Gymnastics team gets a lot of top billing here at Dawg Sports, and their season officially gets underway Friday night. The Missouri Tigers, ranked #16 in the preseason, come into Stegeman Coliseum to face the #10 ranked Georgia Bulldogs.
For the uninitiated, Gymnastics has a predominant post-season presence. It’s like basketball - get a bid to the big dance and see what happens. The regular season is more of a tune-up and a chance to improve positioning with some head-to-head matchups. But unlike basketball, this is more of an individual sport so you don’t really have the NC States beating Houston, or George Mason making a run, or hardly any 5-12 upsets. You either have the elite gymnasts and you advance, or you don’t. When last we left our intrepid ladies in March 2020, they were gearing up for the 2020 post-season, before everything was ultimately canceled.
The 2021 season has, of course, been affected by the pandemic and will look a little different. Normally the Gym Dogs participate in one or two multi-team matches, where 4 teams all compete for a match title. And normally Georgia will schedule a tough out-of-conference foe like Oklahoma or Utah, while mostly facing the rest of the tough SEC Conference. Such is not the case in 2021 - the competition will be SEC Conference foes only, as a nod to reduce travel, exposure, and mitigate risk to the student-athletes. Starting this week, Georgia will face in-conference squads for 4 straight weeks, enjoy an off-week, then 4 more weeks of SEC play before the SEC Championships March 20th.
Of the 8 teams on Georgia’s schedule, all are nationally ranked in the pre-season. Aforementioned Missouri is 16th, Florida is #1, LSU is 3rd, and Arkansas is 15th. Not exactly a warm handshake to get up to speed. After the break, Georgia faces Alabama (#6), Auburn (#14), Missouri again, and closes out the regular season against Kentucky (#12). They are on the road at Florida, at LSU, at Auburn, and at Missouri the 2nd time around.
Coach Courtney Kupets-Carter begins her 4th season at the helm of the Gym Dogs, and the results are somewhat mixed. She lost a lot of senior leadership but also recruited different athletes. 2019 was the high water mark in her tenure, as Georgia made it to the National Championships, losing in the semi-finals (8 teams in the semis, 4 in the finals). 2020 was a bad luck year, especially for injuries, several that occurred just before the season or in the first few matches. The ladies fought hard, imroved during the year and hung around a national top 10-12 ranking. They were looking to surprise some folks in the post-season, then the season was halted. Now CCKC has had a few months to get ladies healthy and tweak the relatively young lineup. Speaking of which, here’s who I think is worth watching in 2021:
Soraya Hawthore (So.). A floor specialist, and unofficially inheriting the floor crown from departed senior and crowd favorite Sabrina Vega. Hawthorne displayed some serious show chops last season. She scored three 9.950s on floor in addition to routinely competing in vault.
Rachel Baumann (Jr.). Baumann is one of several Gym Dogs making the devil’s apparatus her... never mind. She’s really doing well on balance beam. In addition to competing in floor, she had a career—high 9.950 on beam last season.
Haley De Jong (So.). Mostly focusing on beam and bars, she peaked with an event title and a 9.925 on beam vs. Arkansas in 2020.
Rachael Lukacs (Jr.). Likely our best bet at All-Around, Lukacs captured 7 event titles last year: 2 on vault, 2 on floor, and 3 all-around.
Marissa Oakley (Sr.). One of only two seniors on squad, Oakley is coming back from a shoulder injury that hampered her all of 2020. She excels on bars, capturing 3 event titles there. Not to mention a perfect 10 at the 2019 NCAA Regionals.
I have no idea the size of the crowd allowed, or that will show up, at the normally standing room only Steg. But since I’m in North Carolina, I’m eternally grateful for the SEC Network who will be televising the match live. Start time is 7:00 pm, so set your viewing schedule accordingly. And as always...