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. Murphy was the 2017 Arkansas Sportswriter of the Year.
Razorback gymnastics back among nation's elite
FAYETTEVILLE — Less than two years after the University of Arkansas completed its first winless run through the SEC, the gymnastics team is bounding its way back to the top of the national rankings in the second year under Coach Jordyn Wieber.
The Razorbacks beat Georgia on the road last week for the first time in program history and moved up two spots in the rankings to No. 4 with a stout 196.875 road score heading into their bye weekend.
Arkansas, with an average score of 196.775, holds its highest ranking since 2012, when a team led by all-arounders Katherine Grable and Jaime Pisani — which had peaked at No. 1 for one week — was No. 3 after the fifth week of the season.
Wieber said she knew this Arkansas roster was capable of scaling the rankings.
Arkansas carried the nation’s No. 4 ranking into this open weekend prior to resuming SEC-only action on Friday at Kentucky. A look at the Razorbacks’ season averages:
Event, Avg., High — National (SEC) rank
Vault, 49.1, 49.175 — 12 (5)
Uneven Bars, 49.056, 49.375 — 15 (6)
Balance Beam, 49.269, 49.35 — 3 (2)
Floor Exercise 49.35, 49.5 — T2 (T2)
Overall, 196.775, 197.25 — 4 (3)
“I think the biggest thing I’m noticing is it’s not necessarily the gymnastics pieces, it’s the confidence and the belief that our team has in themselves and in their team this year,” Wieber said on a Thursday video conference.
The Razorbacks have been particularly strong on the floor exercise, where their 49.5 score from Week 2 is the highest in the nation. Their average score of 49.35 ranks behind only LSU (49.392) and is tied with Florida, the top two teams in the nation.
Gymnastics is a unique sport in that head-to-head records from dual meets have little bearing on postseason qualifications. The Razorbacks (1-3), who are competing against an All-SEC schedule due to the coronavirus pandemic, lost their first three meets — two against LSU and one against Florida — prior to the win at Georgia’s Stegeman Coliseum.
“It feels good to get a win, especially in someone else’s house,” senior all-arounder Sarah Shaffer said. “We don’t focus on that too much, we just focus on doing the best routines we can to help our scores.”
Added junior all-arounder Kennedy Hambrick, “We definitely had our moment when we celebrated and we felt closer as a team because we knew we did the best that we could and it showed. So it did feel great.”
Wieber said the Razorbacks took the early part of the open week to refine skills with specialized training and some half-routines. On Thursday and Friday, the team did mini intrasquad sessions, focusing on the vault and uneven bars one day, then the floor exercise and balance beam the next day. The goal was to hone routines to improve meet-day performance.
“I keep telling the team we have to keep pushing and breaking those goals we haven’t been getting in the meet,” Wieber said. “We have to get them in practice so it translates to the meet. So it’s a really great week for us.”
The Razorbacks understand they have been leaving behind scoring opportunities on a week-by-week basis. Arkansas had to count a fall on the bars in its Week 2 meet against LSU, otherwise it might have knocked out a 197.
The next week, Arkansas surged past the 197 milestone for a 197.25, the third-highest score in program history. It was the second-highest score in the nation that week, but the highest score came from Arkansas’ opponent, Florida.
The Razorbacks understand a few more stuck landings or precise handstands can help them achieve greater results.
“Always landings on every event,” Shaffer said as an area to improve. “It’s an area we always focus on a lot in practice, just to get as many stuck landings as we can. There are small details on every event. We’re not scoring 10s yet, so there are always tenths here and there to improve on and get better at.”
Shaffer is the nation’s No. 29 vaulter and No. 47 all-arounder. Hambrick, the nation’s No. 30 all-arounder, will rise in that ranking as soon as she can throw out one low bars score. She is also No. 11 on the balance beam (9.894 average) and No. 19 on the floor exercise (9.887), where junior teammate Sophia Carter is No. 9 (9.9).
Senior transfer Maggie O’Hara ranks 11th on the bars (9.894) and 30th on the beam (9.856). Sophomore Bailey Lovett is 22nd on the beam (9.869) and 24th on the floor (9.875).
“We’re doing really well in the gym, and it’s transferring over into the meets,” Hambrick said. “I feel like we’re getting much more comfortable throughout the season. If it keeps going like that we’re going to do great things.”
“We know there’s so much more our team can do to get extra points on the board,” Wieber said. “Even at Georgia, it was a great win and they made history, which is no small thing, but we didn’t stick a lot of dismounts on bars. We still have more landings and little details we can improve on, which is real exciting.
“I keep saying to the team it feels like we’re kind of climbing a mountain each week and our job is to keep taking one more step up the mountain. We have not hit our peak yet. Not even close.”
Have a comment on this story? Join the discussion or start a new one on the Forums.