Conference’s grip on sport seems firm

By: Tom Murphy
Published: Saturday, March 19, 2016
Arkansas' Amanda Wellick competes Friday, Feb. 26, 2016, in the beam portion of the Razorbacks' meet with Kentucky in Barnhill Arena in Fayetteville.
Photo by Andy Shupe
Arkansas' Amanda Wellick competes Friday, Feb. 26, 2016, in the beam portion of the Razorbacks' meet with Kentucky in Barnhill Arena in Fayetteville.

The SEC has reasons to tout its dominance in a variety of sports, but that applies to women’s gymnastics perhaps more than any other.

SEC teams have won or shared 11 of the past 12 NCAA women’s gymnastics championships, including current three-time defending champ Florida.

The Gators, under firstyear Coach Jenny Rowland, are among the favorites to claim their 10th SEC title today on the raised podium at Verizon Arena, which will host the event for the third time. LSU — which had the SEC’s best dual meet record at 6-1, including a 197.9 to 197.825 victory at Florida on Feb. 26 — should also be in contention for its first SEC title since 1981. The Tigers feature the nation’s top vaulter and floor performer Ashleigh Gnat and the No. 7 all-around gymnast Myia Hambrick, who has won five all-around titles this season.

The first session with Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky and Missouri will be held at 1 p.m. (ESPNU). The second session with Alabama, Auburn, Florida and LSU will be at 5 p.m. (SECN).

All eight SEC teams are ranked among the nation’s top 22 teams, including five in the top 10 in No. 2 Florida, No. 3 LSU, No. 4 Alabama, No. 6 Auburn and No. 8 Georgia.

The Crimson Tide (8-5 overall, 3-4 SEC), a six-time NCAA champion, claimed the past two SEC championships.

No. 13 Arkansas (7-5) posted a 4-3 dual meet record in the SEC, including victories over Alabama and Auburn, and has won four consecutive meets, including a season-best 197.225 against Kentucky. The Razorbacks would like to improve their regional qualifying score enough to reach the top 12 and pick up a No. 2 seed for the NCAA regionals.

“A second seed is still viable,” Arkansas Coach Mark Cook said. “If we can score close to 197 in our session, we can move up about 0.8 in our regional qualifying score because we’d be dropping like a 196.15. We can get a really big bump from this conference championship if we do well.”

Nine of the nation’s top 25 all-around gymnasts will be in action, led by Florida’s Bridget Sloan, who has scored three 10s on the year. Sloan leads the country with a 39.63 regional qualifying score in the all-around.

Arkansas’ Amanda Wellick, the nation’s No. 17 all-arounder (39.39), is seventh in the SEC. The junior thinks Arkansas can reach its peak today.

“I think we do a really good job of bringing our own energy into the arena, and I feel like this year will be especially different because it will be at home, and we’ll have more Arkansas Razorback fans there,” Wellick said.

Auburn (8-5, 4-3) notched its first dual-meet victory over Alabama in 37 years Feb. 13, with a 197.275 to 197.250 decision at Auburn. The Tigers are led by the nation’s No. 5 all-arounder Caitlin Atkinson, who scored 9.925 in the anchor spot on the floor to cap Auburn’s victory over Alabama.

Georgia (5-8, 4-3), the 10-time NCAA champion, is looking for its first SEC title since 2008.

Arkansas’ vault rotation has been thinned with the season-long loss of senior Heather Elswick (wrist) and a more recent injury to Leah MacMoyle (leg). Cook said the Razorbacks rested up more than normal this week to rejuvenate for today’s championships.

“We know what the competition is, we’ve competed against them,” Cook said. “It’s a matter of going down there and adjusting to the equipment and adjusting to the environment and executing.”


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