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Arizona GymCats lose to Cal in another tale of two halves

TUCSON, ARIZ. — Mackenzie Barile of Arizona Gymnastics vs. UCLA at McKale Center.Jan. 31, 2021.
Simon Asher / Arizona Athletics

After opening the season against national powers Utah and UCLA, Week 3 was the Arizona GymCats’ best chance to get their first win. Once again, they fell into a hole in the first two events—vault and uneven bars—that they just couldn’t climb out of. California would handily take the victory 196.075 to 194.875 in the lowest-scoring meet so far for Arizona.

“Anytime that we don’t perform up to our expectations, as coaches we always want to think what else can we do better?” Arizona head coach John Court said. “And you go back to the drawing board.”

The low scores started right off the bat when the GymCats had their lowest vault score of the young season with a 48.375. The fact that their 48.300 on bars wasn’t their lowest of the season is just a testament to how much they struggled last week against UCLA when they scored a 48.075.

Court wasn’t entirely dissatisfied with the effort, though.

“We dug ourselves a little bit of a hole,” he said. “But it was a combination of a few things where we actually executed pretty well. And I think that one of the hard parts about gymnastics, it’s based on subjectivity. And it’s not if you stay behind the line it’s a 3, inside the line it’s a two. It doesn’t work that way. Our team did a pretty good job. We made some mistakes.”

The difficulties on vault were somewhat understandable. Senior Payton Bellows, who has scored 9.800 on vault in both meets this season, wasn’t in the rotation on Saturday due to injury. Court doesn’t know how long she will be out, but hopes she will return soon.

On Saturday, sophomore floor specialist Libby Orman was inserted into the first vault rotation of her college career in place of Bellows. Her willingness to step up and do what the GymCats needed got Orman designated the gymnast of the meet for her team.

“She did a fantastic job,” Court said. “I mean, it’s something that she’s had to get used to doing this season, and I was happy that she wanted to. She had a decent warm up for her. And it’s like, we need to do this, because at the end of the day, sometimes you don’t know what’s going to happen and you want to have as many people up as possible.”

On the bars, Arizona is adjusting to life after experienced bar workers like Chrissy Berg, Heather Swanson, Haylie Hendrickson and Maddi Leydin, all of whom have now graduated and moved on. The loss of Berg, an All-American on the event during her time in Tucson, certainly changed the face of the event.

Court believes they have the talent to get to that level. What they lack is the experience and the ability to produce when the lights are on.

“We don’t compete the way we practice,” he said. “And when you have any team—but especially when you have a young team—we know how they practice, but we’re also learning how they compete. This is the learning environment for them.”

The GymCats are being carried by freshmen and sophomores. Inconsistency has been the name of the game on the bars. Even the team’s most consistent bar worker, freshman Elena Deets, finally had a below-average meet after scoring a 9.800 and 9.875 her first two weeks.

“When they can kind of put together the gymnast that they are in the (practice) gym...and that shows up downstairs (in McKale), you’ll see a point difference,” Court said.

There were bright spots throughout the meet. As a team, the GymCats once again showed that they are strong beam workers.

They came into the day ranked No. 11 in the country on the event, and these results shouldn’t damage that placement. The group scored a 49.150 by getting off to three straight 9.800s from Avery Stauffacher, Caroline Herry and Deets. Only one score would fall below the 9.800 mark on the event.

They also scored above the 49-point mark on the floor, where they rank No. 22. It’s another event that has gotten stronger for the GymCats over the last few years. The 49.050 was lower than last week, but still showed the potential for the team to be able to make up some ground in the final two rotations.

Freshman Jessica Castles competed in three events and performed an exhibition in the fourth. On beam and floor, she scored a 9.875 and 9.850, respectively. On vault, she gave the team a 9.725. Her 9.775 exhibition score on bars would have tied the team high had she been in the regular rotation.

“She’s been training bars in the gym,” Court said. “It’s the event that’s come around last for Jessica. Peter (Jansson) and I talked and he said, ‘you know, let’s have her warm up. She’s been doing some good sets upstairs in the gym.’ She had a really good warm up, so it was a very easy decision to make. Now, when the exhibition outscores a whole lineup or ties MacKenzie Kane, she didn’t make the coaches look too good on that lineup decision, but at the same time, we know that we have another quality bar routine if we choose to use her down the line.”

Now all there is to do is to look to improve down the line.

“I always say it’s not how you start, it’s certainly how you finish,” Court said. “I wish the last two homestands we went 196 in both them, but we didn’t and we can’t change that. We have to change it upstairs and try to compete like we practice. That’s, I think, the main thing, and this group can do it. You know, the coaches and the athletes have full confidence in themselves to go out there and do it and when they put it all together, it’s going to be pretty special.”