FAYETTEVILLE – Arkansas’ 10th-ranked gymnastics team gets a good test for NCAA post-season competition with Saturday’s 4 p.m. Southeastern Conference Championship in Duluth, Ga.
All seven conference members are listed among the nation’s top 24 in this week’s GymInfo national rankings.
"If you look at the top 10 teams in the country, five are in the SEC and we’re one of those," co-head coach Mark Cook says. "That gives you an idea of how tough the competition is. It’s also exciting to know you’re a part of that and it presents you with an opportunity to knock off one of those teams."
Florida enters the meet ranked No. 1, Alabama is No. 3, Georgia No. 5, LSU No. 8, Arkansas No. 10, Auburn No. 15 and Kentucky No. 24.
The teams drew for their competition order between practice sessions on Friday. The Razorbacks open on floor, followed by a bye,vault, bars, bye, beam and end on a bye.
"The challenge is really more the environment," co-head coach René Cook says. "The competition is on podium so we need to work on our timing on the equipment. One thing we did well last year was make quick adjustments. It will also be loud, so we need to know how to handle ourselves."
In addition to being led by the top-ranked all-arounder and the No. 1 floor worker in the nation in senior All-American Jaime Pisani, Arkansas gets a boost with the return this week of junior All-American Kelci Lewis.
Lewis missed last week’s meet at No. 16 Missouri after getting injured on a vault landing in the second rotation of the meet at No. 28 West Virginia on March 10. She had been competing on vault, beam and floor, and is expected to be on vault and floor this week.
Sophomore All-American Katherine Grable, who is ranked No. 4 in the nation in the all-around, No. 6 on vault and floor, and No. 11 on beam, may be available on a limited basis. She’s missed the last two meets after injuring an ankle against Minnesota on March 2.
The Razorbacks have also been without junior all-arounder Jordan Salsberg the last three weeks. She’s out for the year after injuring a knee against Nebraska on Feb. 24.
"Kelci really helps our floor lineup," René says. "We’ve struggled there. Katherine is progressing, but we may wait for (NCAA) regionals. It depends on how she’s doing."
Lewis’ return means changes in the vault and floor lineup, but other changes are possible, too.
"I’m changing the lineup order on vault and bars because I felt like I needed to do something," Mark says. "I did that for our intrasquad and it was good. We’re also keeping an eye on Katherine. She’s day-to-day."
The injuries have forced the staff to juggle their lineup, but that could pay off.
"The good news is everyone is getting a lot of experience," René says. "Everyone will be prepared for the regional and nationals. It’s been difficult having the mistakes we’ve had the last few weeks, but we’re getting people in the lineup we weren’t planning on using and now they are ready to go. I feel like we’re on the right path."
One constant in the lineup has been Pisani. She has 13 individual event wins over the last three weeks, winning all five against Minnesota and four each against West Virginia and Missouri. Pisani is No. 1 in the nation in the all-around and on floor, tied for seventh on bars, tied for ninth on vault and tied for 11th on beam. She has 30 event wins this year, and her 39.725 all-around and 9.975 floor scores tie for the best in the nation this year.
"She’s taking no prisoners," Mark says. "She’s on fire and is dialed in. Jaime is really performing well right now. It’s a blessing and a pleasure to coach a kid who is performing her sport as well as she is right now."
"Jaime is a great competitor and leader," René says. "She’s risen to the occasion, especially with Katherine and Jordan out. She’s teaching the other girls how to handle themselves under pressure and keeping us competitive when we’ve struggled."
Arkansas’ lineup last week at Missouri on vault included freshman Stephani Canizaro, junior All-American Amy Borsellino, sophomore Scarlett Williams, senior Mariah Howdeshell, Pisani and sophomore Bailee Zumwalde. Borsellino led off on bars, followed by Canizaro, Pisani, freshman Sammy Kolbas, sophomore Shelby Salmon and Howdeshell. On beam, Kolbas was first, followed by Williams, Salmon, Borsellino, Pisani and Howdeshell. Williams went first on floor, followed by Kolbas, Canizaro, Zumwalde, Borsellino and Pisani.
"We’ve been trying to get some of the girls more confidence," René says. "Over the last three meets they’ve started to develop that and see our potential. We want to go to the SEC meet and compete well, not count a fall and focus on ourselves. It’s a long competition and there are a lot of things we can be successful at."
The Razorbacks will be back in Barnhill on April 7 for the NCAA South Central Regional. Tickets for the regional are $10 for adults. A $5 ticket is available for youth/students, everyone 18 and younger or with a valid UA student ID. A family plan is also available, including two adult and two youth tickets for $25.
Tickets can be purchased at the UA Ticket Center on Razorback Road, by calling 479-575-5151 or 800-982-4647, or online at ArkansasRazorbacks.com.