Razorbacks head to 'Bama for top-5 gymnastics showdown

Arkansas gymnast Sirena Linton (left) and Alabama gymnast Luisa Blanco (right) are shown during 2024 NCAA gymnastics meets. (AP Photos by Michael Woods and Vasha Hunt)

Hot off its best season-opening score in school history (197.15), the University of Arkansas gymnastics team now faces its first top-five matchup in more than a decade tonight.

No. 4 Arkansas (1-0, 1-0 SEC) will take on No. 3 Alabama (4-0, 1-0) at 6:30 p.m. Central at Coleman Coliseum in Tuscaloosa, Ala., in the Razorbacks’ first road meet of the season. It will also be the first top-five meet for Arkansas since the third-ranked Razorbacks fell 197.425 to 196.175 at home to No. 5 Oklahoma on Feb. 5, 2012.

The Razorbacks and Crimson Tide each lead the nation in one event, Arkansas on the floor exercise with its season-opening 49.575 and Alabama with an average score of 49.538 on the uneven bars.

The Razorbacks also have two athletes leading the country, with sophomores Frankie Price and Lauren Williams putting up 9.95s to share the floor exercise title last week. The Razorbacks have had only two athletes lead the country on an event at any point in a season: Katherine Grable in the all-around in 2014 and Jaime Pisani in the floor exercise in 2012.

Fifth-year Coach Jordyn Wieber’s team defeated Georgia with its 197.15 last Friday at Barnhill Arena. Alabama, under second-year Coach Ashley Johnston, has two meets under its belt, having debuted with a 197.125 to defeat Auburn, Cal and UCLA in the Mean Girls Super 16 at Las Vegas before posting a 197.225 in a home win over Missouri last week.

It took the Razorbacks eight years after their founding to record their first 197 in 2010. Coaches Mark and Rene Cook produced 10 scores of 197 or better through 2019. Wieber’s teams have hit the 197 mark 13 times, including in 6 of their past 10 competitions.

Wieber said the Razorbacks came out of the season-opener believing the 197-plus was a “baseline” kind of performance and they have room to grow, particularly on the balance beam, uneven bars and vault.

“It’s just continuing to stay in a rhythm,” Wieber said. “A lot of the little mistakes we saw … were first-meet jitters. We’ve got to dial in a little bit more on vault landings. We want to be a little bit more solid and less wobbly on beam.”

Wieber and Johnston expressed their respect for the other’s program this week.

“In the SEC, every team is capable of greatness,” Johnston said. “Arkansas is a really talented team. They have been on the rise. They’re coming off a really good first showing at home. … They’re capable of a great score.”

Added Wieber, “I have so much respect for Ashley and her program and how she started her head coaching career last season. They have a really talented roster.

“Gymnastics is one of those sports where one mistake, one fall can put one team ahead of another. So we’re going to go in and do our very best to compete and fight and be the best team we can be. Hopefully we can compete against Alabama.”

Arkansas has won only one meet at Alabama’s Coleman Coliseum, by a score of 196.7 to 196.4 on Jan. 22, 2016.

Wieber said the right mental approach can lead to better results against programs like Alabama, which has historically dominated the series against Arkansas.

“I think the first step in striving to win any meet in this conference is having the belief that you can,” Wieber said. “And that is something that’s been hard to instill in the program over the last four seasons is just getting them to understand that you are good enough to beat any team in this conference.”

Wieber was asked about her gymnasts saying this team has a different feel than in year’s past.

“When they say this team is different it really resonates, and I think what makes them different is their hunger,” Wieber said. “This team is so competitive and they want to see this program get to a place it has not been to in a while, so that is something that fuels them every day. “

Wieber said there’s a chance sophomore Reese Drotar, who suffered a muscle injury a few weeks ago, could be in the uneven bars rotation for the meet. The coach also said freshman Priscilla Park might compete in the all-around for the first time.

Alabama has dominated the series, winning the first 11 meetings before a Razorback breakthrough on March 9, 2008, at the UCLA Quad meet in Los Angeles.

The Tide had another 16-0-1 stretch between 2009 and 2014 before Arkansas won three times in five meets between 2015-17. Alabama is back on a 17-meet winning streak.