Tom Murphy is a reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A graduate of Louisiana Tech University, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America, and voter for the Heisman Trophy and AP Top 25 football poll.
Arkansas gymnastics opens with rough stretch
Arkansas' Amanda Wellick competes Friday, March 11, 2016, in the bars rotation during the 11th-ranked Razorbacks' meet with Utah State in Barnhill Arena in Fayetteville.
FAYETTEVILLE -- The No. 17 Arkansas gymnastics team will open the season with a tough one today on the road at No. 4 UCLA.
The Razorbacks, under 15th-year Coach Mark Cook, face a rugged opening run in search of their 12th consecutive Top 20 finish, the program's seventh NCAA championship appearance and its third Super Six.
Arkansas Gymnastics glance
COACH Mark Cook (178-215-3 in 15th year at Arkansas; 248-249-4 in 19th year overall)
ASSISTANTS Samantha Snider, Jaime Armbrust, Ryan Snider
2016 RECORD 12-12, 4-3 SEC
2016 POSTSEASON Sixth at SECs, third at NCAA Iowa City Regional
SEASON OPENER At UCLA, 6 p.m. Central today
ROSTER Seniors: Heather Elswick, Samantha Nelson, Amanda Wellick; Juniors: Mia Bargiacchi, Leah MacMoyle, Braie Speed; Sophomores: Makenzie Anderson, Sydney McGlone; Freshmen Michaela Burton, Hailey Garner, Kirby Rathjen, Sarah Shaffer, Jessica Yamzon
Arkansas (12-12 overall, 4-3 SEC last year) will face seven consecutive top 20 teams to open the season, including No. 9 Georgia, No. 3 Alabama, No. 8 Auburn, No. 2 LSU and No. 5 Florida in successive weeks after next Friday's home opener against No. 19 Missouri.
"We're probably going to start off a little bit slower this year and probably gain some momentum," Cook said. "They'll get cleaner as the season goes along."
The senior trio of Amanda Wellick, Heather Elswick and Samantha Nelson will lead the team, which is bolstered by five freshmen.
"I think we're going to start off strong," said Wellick, a second-team All-American in the all-around in 2016. "We have some strong freshmen to help us out and our returners are really strong, and I have a lot of confidence in them."
Elswick (wrist ligament) and junior Leah MacMoyle (Achilles) are returning from injury, while freshman Sarah Shaffer will be out for an extended period after suffering an elbow injury in preseason practice. Additionally, the Razorbacks lost junior Paige Zaziski, a three-event standout who transferred to Michigan during the summer.
Elswick had to have cleanup surgery on her wrist to take care of scar tissue, and she'll be limited to the floor exercise early in the season.
"This week is just to kind of get our baseline in, and then we can build on that," said Elswick, an All-SEC selection in 2015. "We'll work throughout the next couple of weeks to make that a little better, a little more clean and maybe add some new things in there too."
The Razorbacks, who finished third in the NCAA Iowa City Regional last season, have competed in NCAA regionals 11 of the last 13 years, including five in a row. They are aiming for their first NCAA championship appearance since 2013.
Freshman Jessica Yamzon will join Wellick in the all-around competition. Cook said freshmen Michaela Burton and Hailey Garner are likely to debut on two events today, while classmate Kirby Rathjen, who suffered an ankle injury in the preseason, is battling to get in the vault and balance beam lineups.
The Bruins, under 26th-year Coach Valorie Kondos Field, are coming off a fifth-place finish at last year's NCAA championships in Fort Worth.
Sports on 01/07/2017
Have a comment on this story? Join the discussion or start a new one on the Forums.