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The Arizona GymCats’ keys to success at NCAA Regionals lie in the hands of 2 freshmen and 2 juniors

Arizona v UCLA Photo by Katharine Lotze/Getty Images

The Arizona GymCats have some talented upperclassmen. Juniors Malia Hargrove and Sirena Linton were both critical to ensuring that the team qualified for NCAA Regionals. But a pair of freshmen give the GymCats the kind of impressive newcomers that they haven’t had since Jim Gault and Bill Ryden led the program. It’s something that Arizona head coach John Court is excited about not just because of what they do for this year’s team, but also because of how it sets the program up for future success.

In 1996, Heidi Hornbeek, Kristin McDermott, and Maureen Kealey were All-Americans as Arizona freshmen. Six years later, the freshman class of Monica Bisordi, Katie Johnson, Stevie Frey, Jamie Ducie, and Jamie Schell produced Pac-10 Freshman of the Year in Johnson and the third-best all-arounder at the Pac-10 Championships in Bisordi.

Over 25 years after the trio of Hornbeek, McDermott, and Kealey were freshmen at Arizona, Emily Mueller and Alysen Fears are trying to have a similar impact on their current team and the future of the program. They may not be All-Americans, but they are striving to get Arizona back to the glory days when competing late into April was expected.

Mueller has been the picture of consistency this season, scoring below a 9.700 on just two routines all year while competing in all-around in 10 of 11 meets. She scored over 39 in all but one of those meets, setting a career high of 39.350 when the GymCats upset Pac-12 Champion Utah on Feb. 25.

It was enough to make Mueller the top-scoring gymnast on the team this season with a total of 420.100. That was almost 40 points higher than Hargrove and almost 90 points higher than Fears, the second and third-place finishers, respectively. Mueller was the GymCats’ highest scorer on bars, second-highest scorer on vault and floor, the third-highest on beam.

Fears competed in all-around in five early meets, as well. In four of those meets, she scored over 39 points, setting a career high of 39.350 against Arizona State on Feb 12. She has excelled at bars and eventually dropped vault because there were others who were more consistent on it, although she hit a 9.800 in her final vault competition against California.

“Vault is the hardest for me,” Fears said. Yeah. “I’m not the most powerful person. I have to rely a lot on technique and things like that. So every turn I take has to be mindful just because I’m not very explosive and powerful naturally.”

It’s not all about the younger gymnasts, though. The juniors need to continue coming up big on the mat and off. The leadership aspect becomes more crucial as the stakes get higher.

Part of taking on that role of leader within the competition requires an athlete to step outside her comfort zone. Linton did just that at the Pac-12 Championships to help her team secure their regional berth. Linton is one of the best beam performers in the conference. She hasn’t scored below 9.825 all season and has scored at least 9.900 five times.

Last week, they needed Linton to put up a score on uneven bars. She had scored as low as 9.025 and as high as 9.825 over the course of six previous meets. In the most important meet of the season, Linton stepped up with her third-highest score of the season, adding 9.750 for her team after scoring 9.900 on beam.

It wasn’t easy for Linton. Putting the mental part of the sport together with the physical has been difficult for her on the uneven bars according to her coach.

“When Sirena’s feeling good, she swings really good, and when she’s not feeling good, she doesn’t,” head coach John Court said. “When she gets her consistency, she is a beautiful bar worker. She was really consistent in practice (the week before the Pac-12 Championships).”

The gymnasts are all pulling for each other, but Linton also has another elite athlete who helps her get through the difficult times. Her partner Shaina Pellington is the starting point guard for the women’s basketball team. The two are able to share the stresses of competing at the top of college sports.

“I think that to be able to share similar experiences and be able to rely on each other for advice and be able to just go and rant to each other about the struggles in the gym (is great),” Linton said. “Whether it’s on the court or on the mat, we can relate but we can also have our differences and kind of give each other advice from a different sport, whether it’s mental blocks, whether it’s frustration, whether it’s just exhaustion, if it’s anything like that, to be able to just have that similarity is really, really cool.”

On the day, it will come down to who can put everything else aside and perform. Linton did that at the Pac-12 Championships. She will need to do that again if the team is going to advance to the second and third days of regionals in a very challenging region.

Fellow junior Hargrove, who advanced to nationals on floor exercise last year, will be crucial in that regard, as well. She not only has more experience in high-pressure college meets than her teammates, but she has been flexible in how she performs. She is also starting to show the leadership that her coach wants from her.

“She’s showing her growth as an athlete and being a leader on the performance side of things,” Court said. “She started to find her voice a little bit, which I would encourage her to do sometimes a little bit more. It’s always great when your best players can be your best leaders.”

Hargrove is being asked to be flexible again in regionals and to show that leadership by example. Giving up something she wants to help the team isn’t always easy in a sport that relies so much on individual performance.

Going into the season, Hargrove was excited that she was introducing a triple series on the balance beam. She performed it during the regular season, but she is being told to be more conservative in regionals. She’s not thrilled about it, but she understands the reasons behind the decision.

“I love that routine,” Hargrove said. “I love it so much. And I obviously can score high on it, but I don’t blame them for wanting to put a safe routine out. I mean, I will put the team first so that we can do what we need to do to make it onto the next round.”

In team gymnastics, putting the team first is part of the deal. As one of the few upperclassmen on the team, Hargrove knows that she has responsibilities to the entire group.

“It’s great that Malia and other athletes can execute some things at a high level,” Court said. “However, the coaching strategy has to play a part in what we throw and when we throw it. During the season, it gives you a little bit of time to mess around with that, but we had to make a decision. Okay, what is going to be the most consistent but also have the best scoring potential at the end of the day?”

For the athletes, now is the time to execute that strategy and hope it plays out the way they all want. If it does, Arizona will advance out of the play-in round as a team for the second time since the format was introduced in 2019. Last season, the GymCats advanced on the basis of a no contest when Temple had to withdraw due to COVID-19 issues within the Owls’ program.

Notes

  • Gymnastic fans have been discussing whether the 36-team format with its play-in rounds are the optimal format for the college postseason. Court said that he is fine with things as they are, but if they are going to change, he would rather see the number of teams reduced all the way to 24. That would cut out one-third of the field.
  • Court would like to see as much of the subjective human element as possible out of college gymnastics, although some of it is built into the sport and it will never be completely eliminated. He acknowledges that the scoring system used by men’s college gymnastics, which is based on the system used in Olympic gymnastics, accomplishes that to some degree, but he still does not want to see it introduced in the women’s college game. He worries that they will lose judges if they introduce a new system and the sport cannot afford to do that. Besides, he’s “not good at math,” he joked.

How to watch the opening rounds of the tournament

The opening round of the Oklahoma region will take place on Wednesday, March 30 at 1 p.m. MST. The broadcast is available on ESPN+ with a subscription. Live Stats are also available.