FAYETTEVILLE - Arkansas' gymnastics team puts its No. 1 national ranking on the line on Friday when the Razorbacks travel to No. 8 Florida for a 6 p.m. Southeastern Conference meet in Gainesville.
The meet is actually a quad meet with the Razorbacks also squaring off with No. 24 Maryland and Bridgeport.
The Razorbacks opened the year at No. 11 in the preseason rankings, but after setting a school record for a season-opener with a 196.45 to win the Cancun Classic, Arkansas followed with a 196.65 in the win over No. 23 Kentucky to jump to No. 3. Last week, the Razorbacks set a school record with a 197.225 in the win over No. 25 LSU to vault to the top of the GymInfo national rankings and into a tie for the top spot with UCLA.
"It's really exciting with all the milestones for this program to get one, and that's a huge one," co-head coach Mark Cook says. "It's early in the season, but after three weeks, it's an indication of where we're headed and a great boost for your confidence. We want to girls to stay focused, but at the same time, it's nice to break through."
Florida knows all about being No. 1. Last year, the Razorbacks knocked off the top-ranked Gators twice. The first win came in Fayetteville when Arkansas scored a 196.70 behind senior All-American Jaime Pisani's event titles on vault, bars, beam and in the all-around.
In the postseason, Arkansas topped the No. 1 Gators again to win the NCAA North Central Regional in Denver, scoring a 196.55.
"The energy at Florida will be really high and we're looking forward to that," co-head coach Rene Cook says. "I'm sure they remember last year. I'm extremely proud of what we've done. We've enjoyed it, but now we need to work hard and focus on the meet. This is a great opportunity for us early in the season to prove who we want to be."
"There's a psychological cycle as far as coming down after such a high," Mark says. "We have to be mentally tough. We don't want them to pull on us what we did to them, so we need to go for the win."
Arkansas is averaging 196.775 points per meet while Florida is averaging 196.158. Arkansas' high score is the 197.225. Florida's high is 196.275.
In the quad format, Arkansas' rotation will be bars, beam, floor and vault. Florida has the traditional rotation while Maryland starts on beam and Bridgeport starts on floor.
"We're focusing and re-focusing," René says. "Everyone is motivated. I don't expect a letdown, but we want to make sure we're prepared for any challenges."
"We want to stay consistent and not let our guard down," Mark says. "Every week is a new week with new challenges. We still want to keep knocking on that 197 score, stay in the rankings as high as possible and push hard through the season."
In addition to the overall No. 1 ranking, Arkansas is No. 1 on bars, another program first for an event, No. 2 on floor, No. 5 on vault and No. 9 on beam.
Individually, sophomore All-American Katherine Grable is No. 2 in the nation in the all-around, No. 2 on beam and No. 3 on floor. Pisani is No. 2 on floor, tied for No. 3 on bars, tied for No. 7 on vault and No. 9 in the all-around. Senior Mariah Howdeshell is No. 2 on bars. In addition, Grable is No. 12 on vault and junior Jordan Salsberg is No. 17 in the all-around.
Grable won vault, beam, floor and all-around titles in last week's win over LSU, setting the school record with a 39.725 in the all-around and tying the mark with a 9.95 on floor. Pisani won bars and floor titles, tying her own record with a 9.95 on floor and tying the record with a 9.95 on bars.
Arkansas' lineup on vault last week was junior All-American Amy Borsellino, junior All-American Kelci Lewis, Salsberg, sophomore Scarlett Williams, Pisani and Grable. On bars, Salsberg went first, followed by freshman Stephani Canizaro, Grable, Pisani, sophomore Shelby Salmon and Howdeshell. Salsberg also led off on beam, followed by Salmon, Williams, Howdeshell, Pisani and Grable. Zumwalde went first on floor, followed by Borsellino, Salsberg, Lewis, Grable and Pisani.
"We made a few errors, but we performed very, very well," Mark says. "The crowd was electrifying. It was the best crowd we've ever had."
"The crowd last week was really vocal and that was awesome for our energy," René says. "We want to keep our momentum going and make a statement that we are for real."
The Razorbacks, who are defending co-SEC regular-season champions, are 6-0 overall and 2-0 in the SEC. All six of Arkansas' wins are over teams in the top 25 - No. 12 LSU, No. 17 Auburn, No. 19 Arizona, No. 23 Kentucky, No. 25 LSU and No. 25 Iowa.