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Arizona GymCats defeat WVU to advance in NCAA Regionals

Arizona v UCLA Photo by Katharine Lotze/Getty Images

An opening mistake on the uneven bars by freshman Emily Mueller might have spelled doom for the Arizona GymCats a couple of years ago. The team lacked depth and the margin for error was very small. On Wednesday afternoon, it just meant that the team picked things up and hit the next 23 routines for the 196.525 to 195.925 victory over West Virginia.

“(Mueller) felt that she let the team down,” said head coach John Court. “And I think that’s normal in that instance. And I told her, ‘We have three more events to go and the team has your back.’ And that’s what happened. There’s no time to stop and feel sorry for yourself. We have 23 more routines left.”

She didn’t feel sorry for herself. After just her second missed routine of the year, Mueller was able to center herself and give three solid performances on the other events. She went on to win the beam competition with a score of 9.875 and garner a total of 29.475 on the other three events.

Mueller came in with an average of 9.768 on bars. Had she scored her average, she would have finished behind teammate Malia Hargrove for second in the all-around competition.

The team posted its second-highest score of this season. The GymCats only bested it at their historic victory over Utah on Feb. 25. On that day, they scored 196.850.

Arizona was led by Hargrove. She won two events—posting a 9.800 on vault and a 9.900 on bars—and took the all-around with a 39.425. The all-around score just trailed the 39.475 she scored to place fourth at the Pac-12 Championships almost two weeks ago.

The team also got a big contribution from sophomore Jessica Castles on the balance beam. Last season and early this year, Castles was a staple on beam and floor exercise. She often gave the team one of its highest scores on both events. She has career highs of 9.900 on both.

Earlier this season, Castles did not compete or travel with the team for a week for reasons Court did not want to discuss. When she returned, it was only to compete on vault. This week, she showed again why she’s so valuable on the balance beam.

It was a historic win for the GymCats. Since the new postseason format was introduced in 2019, the team had not earned a victory in the postseason. Arizona advanced out of the first round last season, but it was not due to a victory. Temple defaulted due to COVID-19 issues within its own program. This time, the GymCats earned their right to advance.

Arizona now faces host and No. 1-ranked Oklahoma along with No. 16 Arizona State and No. 18 Arkansas. The GymCats have already competed against Oklahoma and ASU. While the Sooners defeated them handily, Arizona was narrowly edged out by ASU by a score of 196.600 to 196.400.

To give the team the best chance to advance, Court and his staff may need to change the game plan. With the team potentially having to compete three times in four days, using the depth the program now has could come into play. There’s more to it than that, though.

“The teams in this session, they have some big stuff,” Court said. “So, we’ll be smart, but there’s a chance we might open up the offense a little bit.”

In the opening round, the staff opted to go the conservative route. They took out some of the riskier skills, including Hargrove’s triple series on the balance beam, because they felt that going clean would give them the best chance to defeat West Virginia. Against a team like the Sooners, that may not be enough.

A decision to pull out the stops would please Hargrove. Earlier in the week, she expressed her disappointment that she would be performing her old routine which lacked the big skills other top college gymnasts perform. Specifically, they were removing her triple series to reduce the risk of a fall.

“Honestly, I love the series,” Hargrove said. “I’m really glad that I got the opportunity to perform it this year. I think for the plan we’re gonna go back to my old routine (in the first round). So single series with an aerial because my coaches don’t want to risk the chance of me falling on my E series even though I know I can do it. But I don’t blame them. I know we need to have a solid score so that we can make it through.”

They got that solid score and they made it through. It may not be enough in the next round, though.

To advance into the regional final on Sunday, the GymCats need to finish in the top two on Thursday evening. The top two teams from that session will face the top two from the early session for the right to advance to the national semifinals. Pulling out all the stops may be the only way to defeat the Sooners, the Sun Devils, or the Razorbacks, and Arizona must be better than two of them.

The quad meet begins at 5 p.m. MST on Thursday, March 31. It will be streamed on ESPN+.