FAYETTEVILLE – Arkansas’ gymnastics team knocked off four ranked opponents on the road last week, but the 11th-ranked Razorbacks are home for a top 25 matchup this week as Arkansas opens Southeastern Conference competition with Friday’s 7 p.m. meet against No. 23 Kentucky.
Arkansas began the season by winning last week’s Cancun Classic over a field including No. 12 LSU, No. 17 Auburn, No. 19 Arizona and No. 25 Iowa.
The defending regular-season co-champions of the SEC open their home schedule this week after setting a school record for a season-opening meet with a 196.45 in Cancun. That score was the second-best in the nation for the opening weekend, topping scores by No. 1 UCLA, No. 3 Florida, No. 4 Oklahoma and No. 5 Utah, among others.
"It was a really great way to start off the season," co-head coach Mark Cook says. "The girls were really focused. They performed like they did in the intrasquad we had before we left. In fact, they did even better. It was good competition and very well executed. We had a good panel of judges and they rewarded our gymnastics, and we appreciate that."
"We competed with a lot of energy," co-head coach René Cook says. "Given all the challenges and distractions, it was a great way to start the season. Our performance was very similar to what we had been seeing in practice. To see that carry over builds a great foundation and confidence."
Kentucky opened with a home meet against Oklahoma, Bowling Green and Wisconsin-Oshkosh, and scored a 194.325.
"Kentucky had a good score last week in their first meet," René says. "I know they are improved. We have to come in and do our job, and stay focused."
Last year, then-No. 12 Arkansas recorded a 195.80-193.95 victory over the Wildcats in Lexington. Senior All-American Jaime Pisani won the all-around with a 39.125 and floor with a 9.90. Junior Jordan Salsberg won beam with a 9.775, and sophomores Shelby Salmon and Scarlett Williams tied Pisani for second on beam with a 9.75. Junior Amanda Siebert was second on vault with a 9.775 and sophomore All-American Katherine Grable was second on floor with a 9.825.
"Kentucky has a new coach, Tim Garrison, and he’s an outstanding coach," Mark says. "He was at Nebraska before going to Kentucky. I expect them to be better because I have a great amount of respect for Tim and his abilities. For us, we have to get into a different frame of mind because we’ll be at home. We need to stay calm, get out there and perform as well if not better than last week."
Last week in Cancun, Grable won the all-around with a 39.275 and beam with a 9.925. Pisani won vault with a 9.925 and floor with a 9.90, and senior Mariah Howdeshell won bars with a 9.925, which ties for the second-best mark in school history.
As a team, Arkansas had a 49.375 on vault, which ties for sixth-best in school history, and a 49.20 on bars, which ties for eighth-best. Those marks also equal last year’s season highs.
"To win the meet and then have each event won by a Razorback was a proud moment," Mark says. "We have the bar set pretty high. The main thing we want to do is maintain and improve on that, and not go backward. It’s a long season with a lot of meets and they won’t all be perfect, but we need to try to maintain that consistency and try to get to the 197-point mark."
Arkansas’ lineup last week was junior All-American Amy Borsellino, junior All-American Kelci Lewis, Salsberg, Howdeshell, Pisani and Grable on vault. The bars order Salsberg, followed by freshman Stephani Canizaro, Grable, Pisani, Salmon and Howdeshell. Last weeks’ lineup on beam was Salsberg, Salmon, Williams, Howdeshell, Pisani and Grable. The floor order was sophomore Bailee Zumwalde, Borsellino, Williams, Salsberg, Grable and Pisani.
"We want to be in the top six throughout the season," René says. "Every week counts. Each week we’ll have a different set of challenges. We have to compete just as hard and confidently every time out."