Depth a strength for UA gymnastics this season

By: Tom Murphy
Published: Saturday, January 5, 2019
Arkansas' Sarah Shaffer competes Friday, Jan. 12, 2018, in the bars portion of the Razorbacks' meet with Kentucky in Barnhill Arena in Fayetteville. Arkansas coach Mark Cook is shown watching in the background.
Photo by Andy Shupe
Arkansas' Sarah Shaffer competes Friday, Jan. 12, 2018, in the bars portion of the Razorbacks' meet with Kentucky in Barnhill Arena in Fayetteville. Arkansas coach Mark Cook is shown watching in the background.

FAYETTEVILLE -- A fresh gymnastics season for the University of Arkansas presents the No. 12 Razorbacks with a prime upset opportunity out of the gate.

Coach Mark Cook's 17th edition of the Razorbacks opens the season at 6 tonight at Barnhill Arena against No. 2 Oklahoma, a program under K.J. Kindler that finished second at the NCAA championships a year ago.

No. 12 Arkansas gymnastics vs. No. 2 Oklahoma

WHEN 6 p.m.

WHERE Barnhill Arena (8,500), Fayetteville

TICKETS Adults $5; 17-under $3; UA students w/ID free admission

INTERNET SEC Network Plus

2018 RECORDS Oklahoma 30-2; Arkansas 7-16-1

SERIES Oklahoma leads 14-1 overall.

NOTEWORTHY

The Razorbacks are 17-15 in season-opening meets. … Arkansas will open against a top-4 team for the fourth time in the last five years. … Arkansas posted its only victory over the Sooners by a score of 196.9 to 195.625 on Jan. 26, 2009, in Norman, Okla. … The Sooners won the last meeting 198.1 to 195.575 last March 9 in Norman. … Arkansas junior Jessica Yamzon has competed in the All-Around in every meet during her first two seasons. … Kirby Rathjen and Makenzie Anderson, two Razorbacks who were injured last season, have taken medical hardships and will no longer compete. … Brett Dolan and former Razorback Heather Elswick will provide coverage on the SEC Network Plus broadcast.

"OU is a strong team," Cook said. "We've beaten them in the past, so it's not like they're not beatable, but at the same time they're a very strong program."

The Sooners own a 14-1 record against Arkansas, with the lone loss coming in a dual meet in Norman, Okla., in 2009.

Oklahoma has combined with UCLA to loosen the SEC's once firm grip on national titles.

The Sooners won outright NCAA championships in 2016 and 2017 and shared the 2014 title with Florida, which claimed sole possession the following season. Prior to 2014, SEC powers Alabama, Florida and Georgia had won eight of the previous nine NCAA championships, interrupted only in 2010 by UCLA.

Arkansas freshman Amanda Elswick, who has elite skills on the vault and floor exercise, is likely to miss a couple of weeks while recovering from an ankle injury.

"We might start off a little bit slower and build difficulty throughout the season," Cook said. "We have harder stuff than we'll probably show the first meet. ... You're going to see some changes in the routines during the course of the season, which is hopefully going to maximize our scoring potential."

The Razorbacks, who are coming off a 10th-place finish at the NCAAs, had a 5-1 record at Barnhill Arena last season, averaged 197.005 in their home meets and posted three 197s at home for the first time.

Juniors Michaela Burton and Jessica Yamzon will compete in the all-around for the Razorbacks, while senior Sydney McGlone is back from injury and ready to contribute on the vault and floor. Sophomores Sarah Shaffer and Sophia Carter are expected to be key contributors again after stellar freshman seasons.

Shaffer will compete on three events and could perform on the balance beam periodically, while Carter will work the beam and floor. Carter scored a program-record 9.975 on the beam in March against Arizona, while Carter and Shaffer each hit 9.5s on the floor to tie for fourth in the school record book.

Junior specialist Hailey Garner, who scored a school-record 9.975 on the uneven bars last year, will lead the team on that event. Other probable starters are sophomores Kailey Gillings and Sydney Laird, and freshmen Kennedy Hambrick and Savannah Pennese.

Oklahoma averaged an NCAA-best 197.85 last season and lost only twice -- a dual meet at No. 5 Florida on Jan. 26 and by a sliver against UCLA at the Super Six.

The Sooners are led by reigning NCAA all-around champion Maggie Nichols, who has scored 10s on all four events and has peaked at 39.925 in the all-around. The junior Nichols, as well as Brenna Dowell, Nicole Lehrman, Bre Showers, Olivia Trautman and Anastasia Webb are expected to rotate in the all-around throughout the season.

Cook thinks the Razorbacks should flex better depth in 2019.

"For right now we have more depth than we had last year, which creates more competition within the team and that's healthy," Cook said. "That makes everybody better and gives somebody a chance to rest.

"In the past we haven't had a chance to rest some kids. It gives us the opportunity to possibly rest somebody if they're having a sore back or they're fatigued. So we can cycle them and make sure we're fresh."

Sports on 01/05/2019

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