Razorbacks looking to improve on top-10 finish

By: Tom Murphy
Published: Friday, January 10, 2014
Arkansas gymnast Katherine Grable warms up on the balance beam during a practice session with teammates Friday at Verizon Arena in North Little Rock in preparation for Saturday's SEC Gymnastics championships.
Photo by Benjamin Krain
Arkansas gymnast Katherine Grable warms up on the balance beam during a practice session with teammates Friday at Verizon Arena in North Little Rock in preparation for Saturday's SEC Gymnastics championships.

FAYETTEVILLE - The No. 11 Arkansas gymnastics team jumps into the season tonight with a preconference tri-meet at Barnhill Arena and higher expectations following its 10th place NCAA finish last year.

“We feel we’re definitely a top-10 program, but time will tell,” said Mark Cook, the Razorbacks co-head coach. “We have to prove that. We’re hoping to be top six in the country and make Super Six again, get on that awards stand. That’s our goal this season.”

Arkansas will host Western Michigan and Division II Bridgeport in the 7 p.m. meet.

The Razorbacks, coming off an injury plagued year, have a loaded roster led by All-American senior all-arounder Katherine Grable.

“She’s on fire right now,” Cook said. “She’s pretty healthy.”

Sydnie Dillard, Heather Elswick, Erin Freier and Keara Glover led last year’s freshman class. The Razorbacks are expecting a big boost from its freshmen again this year, led by all-arounder Amanda Wellick, as well as Samantha Nelson, Emily Bates and Paris Ryder.

The Razorbacks also welcome back from injuries senior Scarlett Williams on the beam and vault and junior All-American Stephanie Canizaro in three events.

Arkansas expects to be stronger on the floor exercise, where Grable has a career best of 9.95, senior All-American Bailee Zumwalde has posted a 9.875, and Canizaro, Dillard and Elswick have all hit 9.85s.

Arkansas prepared for its opener by hitting all 24 routines in an intrasquad meet last week. Grable posted a 39.425 in the all-around with four scores of 9.8 or better, while Wellick hit a 9.9 on the floor for the highest score.

“On beam, we were phenomenal,” Cook said last week, indicating the event could be Arkansas’ strongest.

“I think the beam is going to be one of the events that really makes our team stand out this year, and I look forward to see that come to fruition,” co-Coach Rene’ Lyst said last week.

Western Michigan is the reigning Mid-American Conference champions. The Broncos are led by sophomore Kayla Weber, last year’s MAC freshman of the year, and sophomore Jessi Buis, the conference’s vault champion. Western Michigan’s top score of last season was 194.975.

The University of Bridgeport, of Bridgeport, Conn., is coming off its fifth consecutive USA Gymnastics Association team title, with its 196.5 blowing away the competition in Shreveport last April. The Purple Knights, coached by Byron Knox, are led by junior Sasha Tsikhanovich, who won the USAG floor exercise title with a 9.925.

“Bridgeport is the top Division II team in the country,” Cook said. “They’ve beaten a lot of D-I programs. They’re going to come in here and try to make a statement.”

Cook said the meet will serve as a good warmup for the Razorbacks, who open SEC action next week at Missouri.

“This is our opener to get ourselves in competition mode for the season, preview our new athletes and see how they perform under pressure,” Cook said.Gymnastics glance ARKANSAS TRI-MEET WHO No. 11 Arkansas, Western Michigan, Bridgeport WHEN 7 tonight WHERE Barnhill Arena, Arena PROJECTED ARKANSAS LINEUP Vault: Stephanie Canizaro, Heather Elswick, Katherine Grable, Amanda Wellick, Scarlett Williams, Bailee Zumwalde; Bars: Canizaro, Cailee Ellsworth, Erin Freier, Grable, Shelby Salmon, Wellick; Beam (six of these seven): Sydnie Dillard, Freier, Grable, Samantha Nelson, Salmon, Wellick, Williams; Floor: Zumwalde, Dillard, Elswick, Canizaro, Wellick, Grable.

Sports, Pages 25 on 01/10/2014

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