FAYETTEVILLE – Arkansas’ nationally-ranked gymnastics team doesn’t waste any time in getting a tough test as the Razorbacks open the 2011 season on Friday at 7 p.m. at No. 4 Oklahoma.
The Razorbacks are ranked No. 11 in the pre-season after finishing the 2010 season 11th at the NCAA Championship. Arkansas has finished ranked among the nation’s top 15 six straight years, earned seven consecutive NCAA Tournament bids and advanced to the NCAA Championship the last three seasons.
"We don’t put a lot of thought into the rankings at this point, but we feel like we’re a top 10 team," co-head coach Mark Cook says. "Now we need to go out and prove it. The girls have trained really hard. The rankings change weekly, so we need to take care of business."
"We feel confident about the team," co-head coach René Cook says. "We have a couple of question marks in our lineup, but we’re ready to get the season started. Our first priority is to go to OU and not count a mistake. We expect them to be great and we know it will be a challenge, but it will also be a good measuring stick for us."
This year’s team is led by a pair of All-Americans – senior Michelle Stout and junior Jaime Pisani. Stout was out all of 2010 with an injury, but returns this year and is expected to compete on vault and bars. The first first-team All-American in school history (vault, 2008), she was also a first-teamer in 2009 on vault, bars and in the all-around, and a second-teamer on floor.
Pisani is also a two-year All-American, earning second-team honors on vault, bars and floor in 2009; and first-team on floor and vault, and second-team in the all-around in 2010.
"Jaime is awesome in the all-around and Michelle is great in her two events," René Cook says. "All of our returnees are in a great place right now. They have all improved in their skills, execution or confidence."
Both Stout and Pisani have earned spots in the NCAA individual event finals. Stout was the first in school history, finishing fourth on vault in 2008, and fifth on vault and tying for seventh on bars in 2009. Pisani finished 10th on floor and tied for 12th on vault last year.
Oklahoma finished second in the nation in 2010 and claimed a 197.475-196.100 victory over the Razorbacks in Barnhill Arena in the regular season finale.
"We don’t like soft schedules," Mark Cook says. "You don’t get better unless you go against the best teams out there."
OU leads the all-time series 5-1, but Arkansas’ win came in its last visit to Norman. In 2009, No. 8 Arkansas upset the No. 7 Sooners, 196.900-195.625.
Other returnees for the Razorbacks are senior Stacy Bartlett, juniors Mariah Howdeshell and Genny Salvatore, and sophomores Natalie Bohonsky, Amy Borsellino, Kelci Lewis and Amanda Siebert.
Newcomers are sophomore Jordan Salsberg, and freshmen Katherine Grable, Shelby Salmon, Scarlett Williams and Bailee Zumwalde.
Arkansas had a practice meet in Barnhill Arena on Dec. 17. The Razorbacks have more depth than in recent years. The practice meet included Howdeshell, Salsberg, Pisani, Salmon, Stout, Lewis, Salvatore, Grable, Zumwalde and Bohonsky on bars. Siebert, Howdeshell, Grable, Salsberg, Pisani, Stout and Lewis competed on vault. The floor lineup was Siebert, Zumwalde, Bartlett, Salsberg, Lewis, Grable and Pisani. On beam, Pisani was followed by Bartlett, Howdeshell, Salsberg, Grable, Salmon and Zumwalde.
"The newcomers have added to the energy level this year," Mark Cook says. "With the depth we have, it’s been a little more competitive this year. That creates a different dynamic when you have that competition with a larger roster. That depth gives us more security and flexibility, but that could all change."
Following the Oklahoma meet, Arkansas opens its home schedule on Jan. 14 in Barnhill Arena against No. 2 Alabama at 7 p.m.