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February 28, 2013

Beaming with pride: Auburn gymnastics sets school record, young squad grows up quick

Bri Guy

BY AARON BRENNER | abrenner@ledger-enquirer.com

@WarEagleExtra

AUBURN, Ala. – The girls didn’t realize what they’d done.

At first, the sheer shock Friday at Auburn Arena was simply from beating LSU, then the owner of sixth-highest regional qualifying score in the country. Then came the real adulation – Auburn’s 197.175 overall score was the highest in school history.

“A couple of us cried, I think,” sophomore Bri Guy said. “We were really ecstatic and really proud of ourselves.”

Staked by the near perfection of Guy and freshman sensation Caitlin Atkinson – named the SEC Gymnast of the Week for her performance – the Tigers have defeated three of four opponents, and have risen to a No. 11 ranking.

A sharp turnaround, considering how the Tigers stumbled around – relatively speaking, of course – in January.

Gymnastics is a sport that focuses on the team’s own individual performances rather than how it compares on the scoreboard to its opponent that night. With that in mind, it was frustrating taking fourth place in a four-team dual at California to open the season, before losses to Kentucky, Georgia and Florida.

Head coach Jeff Graba did expect “hiccups early on, with eighty percent of his lineup consisting of freshmen and sophomores yet to turn 20.

“I think it was more confused,” Graba said. “We knew going in we were going to have a lot of growing pains and a lot of teaching to do early on. We were simulating a lot of pressure sets, trying to put people in tough positions in practice, but it never really was the same as being in a meet.”

Guy knew, eventually, her team’s youth would pay off, because that’s the nature of her sport.

“We’re all babies. I get it all the time – in the airport, someone thought I was a sixth-grader,” said Guy, listed at 4-foot-11. “Recruiting, you have to start a lot earlier. The younger you are, the more appeal you have because you have that much more potential.”

The first day the calendar flipped to February, Auburn began its turnaround with a win at Missouri. Another win over Arkansas was followed by a loss to national powerhouse Alabama, but the upward trend was for real.

“It was difficult at first, but it really showed us how much work we needed to put in – not necessarily that we weren’t putting in the work, but we needed to put more pressure on each other,” Atkinson said. “It helped us out in the long run, because I don’t think we would have broken the school record if that hadn’t happened because it pushed us to get that much better, continually every week.”

The LSU triumph marked the program’s fifth straight score of 196 or higher, which Auburn has never done before. The Tigers’ 49.450 score on the floor routine, and Atkinson’s all-around 39.550, were each the third-highest totals in school history.

“We all believed from the very beginning that we are fully capable of what we did Friday night,” Graba said. “That’s really our expectations.”

Finished with SEC regular season competition, Auburn’s got two more home meets with Maryland on Friday and Lindenwood on March 8 before a trip to Pittsburgh. The SEC Championships are March 23 in North Little Rock, Ark., and NCAA Nationals are April 19 in Los Angeles, with both postseason events televised by ESPNU.

Caitlin Atkinson

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