Last season was a breakthrough of sorts for the Arizona GymCats. For the first time since the retirement of long-time head coach Bill Ryden, Arizona sent a gymnast to the final NCAA meet of the year. In just her sophomore season, Malia Hargrove qualified for NCAA nationals.
“I had no experience of going there,” Hargrove said. “It was so surreal. It was just incredible to see all these top teams compete and be in the zone and prepare even on the practice day. It was really just like, that’s what I want it to be.”
Hargrove rotated with Alabama, which was competing as a team. They were joined by a few other athletes who qualified as individuals, including some fellow Pac-12 gymnasts from UCLA and an athlete from Rutgers. After the meet, Arizona head coach John Court was very complimentary of the way Alabama welcomed his athlete and the three Wildcat coaches.
Getting Hargrove to nationals was a step in the right direction for Court and his program. When he officially took over the program as permanent head coach in March 2018, he had some work to do to get the GymCats back to where they were under the tutelage of Arizona’s great coaches of the past.
Under decorated coaches Jim Gault and Ryden, the program had produced All-Americans, NCAA event champions, Pac-10/12 event champions, and winning records. The program had even produced a winner of the prestigious AAI award which is presented to the top senior gymnast in the country
Gault led the program for 18 years. Ryden was beside him as an assistant for the last eight of those years beginning in August 1990. In all, Ryden spent 25 years as either an assistant or head coach of Arizona gymnastics.
When Ryden retired after the 2015 season, Greg Byrne, the athletic director at the time, decided to make a break from the past. Like Ryden, Court had spent years as an assistant at Arizona. In his case, it was nearly two decades. He also had previous experience as a head coach prior to joining the GymCats.
Rather than following the lead of his predecessor and going with the long-time Arizona assistant, Byrne reached outside for decorated Stanford alumna Tabitha Yim. Court, who had served as Ryden’s recruiting coordinator, was retained as Yim’s assistant.
It was a gamble that didn’t pay off. Just two years after taking the job, Yim was hired away by her alma mater just before the 2017-18 school year began. Everyone knew it would happen as soon as the Stanford job came open, but it was still a bit of a shock for it to happen so soon. Athletic Director Dave Heeke gave Court the Arizona job on an interim basis in August 2017 and then granted him the permanent title in March 2018.
Madison Cindric, Kennady Schneider, and Victoria Ortiz came into the program in 2014. They would have three different head coaches by the time they left in 2018. That kind of turnover couldn’t help but damage the program’s reputation on the recruiting trail.
“Instability is not an attractive characteristic in the recruiting process, whether it’s us looking at them or them looking at us,” Court said. “You want stability, you want consistency. It’s one of the first things that people look at. So, I feel good in this cycle and into our future cycles, and I think that they feel that from us in the process, because the first thing that I tell them, I said, recruiting is about building relationships.”
The stability has helped in recruiting. Court is pleased with the three freshmen he and his staff brought in this year as well as the continued development of those who joined the last two years. For the first time in years, he believes he has multiple gymnasts who are strong enough in all four events to be all-arounders. Hargrove is just one of them. He also has a few specialists who will be very special, like junior Sirena Linton and sophomore Jessica Castles.
Former four-star recruit Alysen Fears headlines the freshmen who joined in August. In November, a group of four signed for next year. It includes three-star recruits Sophia Stephens and Jordan Schultz. The following class already includes three gymnasts who have given verbal commitments, including another three-star gymnast.
“The culture has continued to develop into a championship culture,” said assistant coach Taylor Spears, who spent her college career in the championship culture of Oklahoma. “So I think that’s really important. The recruiting is amazing. We have a lot of great kids on the team and a lot of incoming kids that John has spent a lot of time getting to know and recruiting.”
The group aims to build on their own achievements, but they also hope to use Hargrove’s individual achievements to spark their group goals. Sending an individual to nationals is a great accomplishment. Sending the entire group there to compete together is something Arizona hasn’t done since 2002.
Hargrove doesn’t think that goal is a distant one.
“I think we just need to clean up everything because we all have the skills...that we can compete and do well,” Hargrove said. “It’s just like when we compete, we have to clean up the little...it’s all about tenths when you get there. Everything is so close because it’s the best of the best. So you really have to be on top of everything, have all the details, landings, pointed toes, straight legs. And just when things get hard, you just have to push through and then I believe we can get there.”
There are interim goals, as well. Competing in the evening flight of the conference championships is a major one. That would mean finishing in the top four of the Pac-12 during the regular season. To do that, Arizona can’t simply put up competitive scores that will qualify the team for regionals. The team must win meets. It’s literally the only time wins matter in the current NCAA gymnastics landscape.
Gault retired with a career record of 344-153-1 and was eventually inducted into the USA Gymnastics Hall of Fame for his contributions to the sport at all levels. Ryden completed his time at Arizona with 219 wins. The GymCats have not finished with a winning record since Ryden’s final season when they were 9-4-1 overall and 3-3 in the Pac-12, although they had a chance at a winning record in 2019-20. They were headed to their final meet at Boise State with a 7-7 overall record when the rest of the season was canceled due to the pandemic.
To move up in the Pac-12 standings and win meets, the GymCats are upgrading routines. Hargrove plans to compete a three-flight series on balance beam that she has not done since high school.
“We’re definitely going to have a lot of triple series,” Spears said. “A lot of difficult series. Emily (Mueller), a freshman, does a side aerial layout step out. It’s one of the hardest series in NCAA. So, really exciting to see those things.”
The fans can get a preview of what the season holds on Monday, Dec. 6 at the GymCat Showcase. The event starts at 6 p.m. MST in McKale Center. The guest judges include GymCat alumna Kara Meyer, Arizona soccer head coach Becca Moros, Arizona women’s golf head coach Laura Ionello, and Arizona track assistant coach T.J. Crater.
The regular season gets underway on Jan. 8 at the Collegiate Challenge in Anaheim, Calif.