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Taking Stock 2020: How Arizona gymnastics is looking under coach John Court

Photo courtesy Arizona Athletics

To help prepare you for the 2020-21 seasons of Arizona’s 19 different men’s and women’s programs we’re breaking 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 at this season and beyond).

NOTE: The information in the ‘before’ section has been repurposed from last year’s series to provide continuity.

Next up: John Court’s gymnastics team

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 she was ever offered their head coaching position. Just over two years after Yim accepted the position at Arizona, Stanford head 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. The GymCats finished 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

Arizona’s absence from regionals was short-lived. In 2019, they headed to Corvallis for the first stop in the postseason. While they didn’t advance, it was a step in the right direction.

The team came into 2020 looking to take the next step. A mix of reliable veterans and several impressive freshmen had them on track to at least return to the postseason.

The senior class of Chrissy Berg, Maddi Leydin, Jenny Leung, Haylie Hendrickson, Heather Swanson and Courtney Cowles had been through the ups and downs. All except the redshirt Hendrickson were heading into their sophomore seasons when Yim left for Stanford. That group had helped right the ship.

They continued improving into their senior seasons. After several seasons of struggling on vault, it became a strength for the Wildcats in 2020. Leydin and Leung were two of the biggest reasons why.

Leung would hit a career high of 9.850 on vault twice during her senior season. Leydin had upgraded her vault late in her junior season. It paid off in 2020, when she tied her old career high of 9.900 twice before setting a new one of 9.975.

In addition to the strong contribution from his senior class, Court and his staff saw dividends from their freshmen. In 2019, he said that the only way Arizona would improve was to build the team through recruiting.

The job that Court, David McCreary and Taylor Spears did on the recruiting trail paid off in both increased depth and improved talent.

At their home opener, the freshman quartet of Zaza Brovedani, Malia Hargrove, Avery Stauffacher and Libby Orman helped lead their team to a victory in a quad meet. Six of the seven freshmen on the team competed that day, and the seventh would get to make her mark later in the season.

Court went into the season saying that one of their goals was to get the weekly and yearly recognitions for Arizona athletes. They did.

Leydin was named All-Pac-12 first team on vault and Berg was honorable mention on bars at season’s end. Brovedani was named freshman of the week in early January.

When the season was canceled just before Arizona was set to face Boise State and then head to the Pac-12 Championships, the GymCats were ranked 27th in the nation. Had they maintained that spot, it would have been a major improvement from the previous season when they finished the regular season at No. 33. Most importantly, they would have avoided the opening round “play-in” meet at NCAA Regionals.

Court has stabilized the program after a few years of coaching turmoil. The GymCats have improved their standing each season under his leadership. They have also improved their performances in areas that were previously weak spots.

One big question

What does Arizona do now that the seniors are gone? Part of the improvement Arizona saw over the past few seasons was the responsibility of the senior class.

Leydin spent most of her first three years performing all four events, then became one of the best vaulters in the conference her senior season. Berg was a master on the bars. Leung was a mainstay on vault and balance beam. Cowles was a dynamic performer who could put on a special beam routine. Swanson had been a solid contributor all four seasons. Hendrickson competed in every meet for four straight years and spent five years in the program.

The team will be quite young when the 2021 season rolls around in January. There will be three seniors, but none of them have the kind of experience that the outgoing seniors had. In fact, all three have missed at least one entire season’s worth of competition during their Arizona careers.

The returning sophomores and juniors will be the core of the team. Last year’s freshmen showed that they can perform under the bright lights of Pac-12 gymnastics. The incoming junior class includes experienced talent like MacKinzie Kane and Kennedi Davis. What the incoming freshman class can contribute remains to be seen.

Court believed that the depth of the team was its strength last year, but a lot of that depth is now gone. The GymCats have six athletes signed for this season. Will they be ready to step in immediately?