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Taking stock: How Arizona gymnastics is looking under coach John Court

Photo courtesy Arizona Athletic

It may seem like college sports are always going on, but July is the one month of the year when no Arizona Wildcats teams are in action. Yep, we’re as sad about that as you are.

Before you know it, the 2019-20 seasons will be under way for Arizona’s 19 men’s and women’s sports. But in the meantime, now is the perfect opportunity to assess how each of these programs are doing.

Over the next few weeks we’ll break down each team and evaluate how it is performing under its current coaching staff, looking at the state of the program before he/she arrived and comparing it to now (as well as looking into the near future).

Next up: the Arizona GymCats under coach John Court.

How it looked before

Gymnastics is a sport that usually has long-term stability in the head coaching ranks. Unless a coach retires, it’s very rare for a program to lose their leadership. The Arizona GymCats were no exception until recently.

The program was at its most consistently great under U.S. Gymnastics Hall of Fame coach Jim Gault, who led the GymCats from 1980 until 1998. The team finished as high as fifth in NCAA gymnastics during Gault’s tenure.

When Gault retired, coach Bill Ryden took the reins. Ryden kept Arizona on the map in a difficult conference. The team was expected to be in the postseason every year, and they met that expectation by continuing a streak that would eventually reach 31 straight appearances in NCAA Regionals. Ryden also led them back to the national finals, then known as the “Super Six,” in 2002.

Court served on Ryden’s staff for 17 years until the head coach left in 2015. When it came time to replace Ryden, then-Arizona AD Greg Byrne turned to Tabitha Yim.

Yim came with a great background. A former elite gymnast who had won medals at both U.S. Nationals and the World Championships, she had continued her gymnastics career at Stanford—first as a gymnast, then as an assistant coach.

It was a risky move. Everyone knew she would leave for Stanford if ever offered their head coaching position. Just over two years after Yim accepted the position at Arizona, Stanford heach coach Kristen Smyth retired. It was mid-August, just before classes were due to start at Arizona, when Yim announced that she was headed back to Palo Alto.

Court took over as the interim head coach in August of 2017. The team missed regionals for the first time in over three decades, finishing two spots outside of qualifying, although they did send two athletes to compete. The high point of the season was defeating Stanford in February.

Where it stands now

Court was named the permanent head coach after the 2018 season. In his first official year as head coach, he brought on Taylor Spears as an assistant coach. The former NCAA balance beam champion from Oklahoma joined fellow assistant David McCreary to complete the staff.

There were ups and downs in the season. When competition got underway, floor exercise was a major question mark. The team had graduated its highest scorer on the event in 2018, and just having enough athletes to compete it was going to be a difficult task.

The season the team put together on the event was probably its biggest triumph. Gymnasts who had stopped competing floor exercise years ago due to injuries stepped up. Other gymnasts upgraded their routines to score higher. While they were never going to threaten the top teams on the event, the solid scores they put up all season were credits to the gymnasts.

On the down side, they were inconsistent on balance beam and uneven parallel bars. The bars hurt the most, since that should have been the strongest, most consistent event for the team.

The GymCats returned to NCAA Regionals as a team, making it a successful season overall. Under the new format, they were forced to compete in a dual meet against Iowa. Although officially called the first round, the dual meet is essentially a play-in competition to see who competes in the main session at regionals. Arizona lost, although they were still able to advance five of their athletes to the second round to compete as individuals.

When the season kicks off in January, the GymCats will have a strong senior class to rely on. All-arounder Maddi Leydin, a former Australian national champion, will be back. Last year, she started competing a vault that she hadn’t performed since she was competing internationally. It was the only vault valued out of a 10.0 that was performed by an Arizona gymnast. If she can perform it cleanly, it would be a big boost for the team in 2020.

Bars specialist Chrissy Berg earned Second Team All-American honors on the event in 2019. There’s every reason to expect her to do at least that well again in 2020.

Senior Courtney Cowles was one of the gymnasts who returned to floor exercise last season. While she usually competes vault and balance beam, if called on to perform floor exercise again, she is capable of earning scores in the 9.8 range on her best days.

Jenny Leung has consistently put up scores in the 9.7s on balance beam and vault. She, too, has earned 9.8s in the past, which the GymCats could use if they hope to avoid the first round of NCAA Regionals in 2020.

By the end of her junior season, Heather Swanson was earning 9.8 or higher on vault in big meets. She scored at least a 9.80 in both the Pac-12 Championships and NCAA Regionals. As Arizona’s weakest event, the team needs to have those scores become the norm rather than the exceptional season or career high. Most of the seniors have shown that they can get those scores on occasion. Can they do more?

The final gymnast in the senior class was a pleasant surprise for the program. Haylie Hendrickson was granted a fifth year of eligibility by the NCAA in early June. She helps solidify the rotation on uneven bars and balance beam.

One big question

Can the team improve on vault this season? Last year, they were forced to count far too many scores in the 9.6 range. That’s not going to get it done if they hope to advance beyond regionals or finish higher than eighth at the Pac-12 Championships.

In general, the leg events (vault and floor exercise) are the weak points in the program. Court says the only way to improve that is through recruiting, and he believes they have incoming freshmen who will do that.

It’s crucial that the program start improving on those events, because NCAA gymnastics is a sport where reputation can help your chances in big competitions. The GymCats need to earn that respect from the judges.