After clearing 198, Arkansas gymnasts head to SEC meet with high goals

Arkansas' Lauren Williams performs her floor routine, Friday, Jan. 12, 2024, during a gymnastics meet against Georgia at Barnhill Arena in Fayetteville.

FAYETTEVILLE — The University of Arkansas gymnastics team has mastered the art of scoring 197-plus under fifth-year Coach Jordyn Wieber to the point it has become routine.

The Razorbacks soared to a program-record 198.1 in last week’s regular-season finale against Nebraska at Walton Arena. That marked the third program-record team score of the season for Arkansas, its first at home and its first time over the elusive 198 mark in the 22 years of the program.

“It was obviously a really cool historical moment for this team,” Wieber said. “It wasn’t the first time we hit a program record this season, but I think getting over that 198 hump was really, really special.

“We got back in the gym and it’s the same messaging every time we hear back from the team is like, ‘OK, we did that but we know we can be even better.’ How awesome is that to be able to acknowledge and then also give us some fuel to bring back into practice?

“The team felt really excited about that. There’s still areas we can improve, but I really feel like it was a confidence booster, especially going into these postseason meets.”

For a team whose record score was 197.475 entering the season, having a 197.445 national qualifying score entering the postseason is a big deal.

However, bounding past 197 in the postseason has not been as easy for Arkansas, which will enter Saturday's SEC Championships at the Smoothie King Center in New Orleans with a less-than-stellar record at the event.

The Razorbacks have a program-best score of 196.825 at the SEC Championships, set last season in Duluth, Ga.

The No. 12 Razorbacks would like to plunder that record in Session I today at 2:30 p.m. in a four-way meet against No. 13 Missouri, No. 14 Auburn and No. 18 Georgia. 

The night session at 7 p.m. will feature No. 3 LSU, No. 4 Florida, No. 6 Kentucky and No. 7 Alabama.

Arkansas has the highest NQS of the early session and went 3-0 in dual meets against those teams this season, including a 197.65 in a road meet at Missouri on March 3, a school-record score that lasted for 12 days. The Razorbacks also notched a home win over Kentucky and a road tie at Alabama en route to a 4-2-1 SEC mark, the third winning conference record in school history and second-best ever behind a 5-1 mark in 2011.

“The approach going into this weekend is just to continue building off of where we are and where we were this past Friday night,” Wieber said. “To not make it a bigger deal than it needs to be and just … we want to dominate that session that we’re in and if we can break into that top four in the SEC, that would be, I think, a really successful weekend for us.”

The Razorbacks enter the meet in good health and would like to keep it that way for the NCAA Fayetteville Regional, scheduled for April 3-6 at Walton Arena.

“I’m excited where we are health-wise in general,” Wieber said. “We have a whole roster of healthy bodies. Overall, I think we’ve done an incredible job of managing their bodies. Mentally, I think that’s the harder challenge just because you have a high, you have a great meet and then you come back in the gym and you’re still a little tired from the meets.”

Arkansas has competed in the night session at SEC Championships only a couple of times and its top finish was fourth of seven teams in 2011. Since Missouri joined the conference in 2013 for the SEC Championships held in North Little Rock, Arkansas has finished fifth twice, sixth on four occasions, seventh three times and eighth once.

Arkansas will be led by sophomores Frankie Price and Lauren Williams, who rank 14th and 16th on the floor exercise, respectively, with NQS posts of 9.95 and 9.945. Williams is also 17th on the vault (9.91). 

Junior Leah Smith is 36th on the vault (9.89) and junior Maddie Jones is in the top 100 on three events: 30th on the floor exercise (9.925), 52nd on the uneven bars (9.89) and 81st on the balance beam (9.875).

The meet will feature the nation’s top all-around performer in LSU’s Haleigh Bryant (39.8 NQS), as well as No. 6 Raena Worley of Kentucky (39.71), No. 8 Leanne Wong of Florida (39.685) and No. 10 Luisa Blanco of Alabama (39.67).

Bryant also ranks first on the vault (9.955) and Worley is first on the floor exercise (9.99).

Seven SEC gymnasts have posted perfect 10s on the floor exercise this season: Worley, LSU’s Bryant and Kiya Johnson, Florida’s Wong and Anya Pilgrim, Alabama’s Blanco and Missouri’s Jocelyn Moore.

Blanco, Bryant and Kentucky’s Makenzie Wilson have all notched 10s on the vault. Bryant, Wong, Worley, Georgia’s Lily Smith and Missouri’s Mara Titarsolej have hit 10s on the uneven bars; and LSU’s Bryant and Konnor McClain and Missouri’s Sienna Schreiber have maxed out on the balance beam.

The Razorbacks have never produced a perfect 10.