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Arizona GymCats finish 2nd in Pac-12 Championship early session, now await NCAA Regionals fate

Arizona gymnasts celebrate at a meet earlier this season.
Photo courtesy of Arizona Athletics

Doing well at the Pac-12 Championships is always important. For the Arizona GymCats, there was also the extra goal of qualifying for the NCAA Regionals, but it was not the focus on Saturday morning.

“You have to worry about today,” head coach John Court said. “Today was the conference championships, and you have to do something there first before you do anything else. So the focus has been the conference championship. It has to happen in stages. And the end goal is regional championships.”

The focus on today was enough to get the GymCats second place in the four-team early session with a score of 195.400. That means they will finish no worse than sixth in the competition depending on how four teams perform in the late session.

With a lineup that features 20 of 24 routines performed by freshmen and sophomores, it was an encouraging showing, if not a perfect one.

Thirteen of the 14 athletes who competed had never done so at the Pac-12 Championships. That included both seniors on the squad. The lone exception was junior MacKinzie Kane.

“They handled themselves pretty well,” Court said. “There were some nerves. There were some routines I felt that we held back on. I thought that we vaulted really well, but we didn’t get rewarded for it. But I thought overall, it was solid for the first time with a four-judge panel, first time up on a podium. We managed to claw back. Managed to beat a Washington squad and a Stanford squad.”

Now, they wait for their NCAA Regionals fate. Arizona went into the day .013 behind Nebraska for the final spot in regionals, but Nebraska had difficulties in its final meet on Saturday. Unofficial tallies indicated that Arizona had moved up to No. 35 of the 36 qualifying spots after the meet, but official numbers will not be in until Saturday evening.

The last eight teams who qualify will compete in opening-round dual meets that determine who moves into the regular eight-team regional meets. These function similarly to the First Four in the Men’s NCAA Basketball Tournament.

“I have a feeling if we do make it, we’re gonna be back here against Nebraska in the play-in,” Court said.

As for those vault scores that got things off to a questionable start, Arizona had several strong vaults, but no one scored over the 9.775 earned by senior Payton Bellows. As has been the case all season, it would put the GymCats in the position of needing to make up ground in later events.

“Everyone scored below their averages,” Court said about the event’s judging throughout the meet. “And with four-judge panels, they’re going to tighten things up in the postseason. I spoke with the meet referee, and I said, I’m okay with the scores being like this if they stay like this. I think they stayed pretty tight unless you did something amazing.”

Bars did a little to help them start the comeback, but not as much as they might have liked. The 48.775 Arizona scored on the event was just their fifth-best score in 11 meets this season, but there were some high points.

The 9.875 by Elena Deets tied for first on the bars, while Malia Hargrove’s 9.825 placed her fifth. But the GymCats were forced to count two scores in the 9.6 range due to a fall by Taylor Raskin.

Heading into the final two rotations, Arizona sat in third with two of their stronger events to come. Despite an uncharacteristic mistake by Jessica Castles, they showed exactly why they were once ranked No. 9 in the country on balance beam with 9.900s from both Hargrove and Sirena Linton.

“It was her first missed routine all year,” Court said of Castles. “Uncharacteristic fall. It’s not Jess. She was batting 1.000 all year. She came back on floor really strong, though. Got a terrific 9.9 when we needed it.”

Linton’s 9.900 came under pressure, as she took the beam right after Castles’ fall.

“That was huge,” Court said. “I mean, when you look at the people had to follow some of the mistakes, (Deets) on bars and Serena. Even you know, on floor exercise, we had a little bit of a hiccup in the middle there with Dani. People had to follow some routines that weren’t their teammates’ best routines, and they handled it. It was a true ‘Bear Down’ spirit.”

That 9.900 on floor exercise tied Castles for second on the event, which was where Arizona finally put everything together. They were able to drop a 9.675 by Danielle Nosek when four of their six routines went for 9.800 or better, pushing them into second in the session.

“We told them before floor, we gotta let it all hang out,” Court said. “There can’t be any doubts. It has to be the best event of the night. And if we ended up tumbling our way into regionals, I’ll take it.”

In additional to finishing second as a team, the GymCats got a strong all-around performance from Hargrove. The sophomore ended the day with a 39.150 to finish third among the six gymnasts who competed in all-around. She scored at least a 9.800 on three of the four events with a high of 9.900 on balance beam.

The Oregon State Beavers took first in the early session with a 195.625. Stanford had a 195.175 to finish third. After heading into the final rotation in first, Washington had a disastrous beam rotation to drop to fourth with a 194.400.