The offseason is here, with all of Arizona’s sports done for 2021-22 and the 2022-23 campaigns still a little ways away.
Which makes this a great time to step back and see how all of the Wildcats’ programs are doing.
Over the next few weeks, we’ll take a look at each of the UA’s 19 men’s and women’s programs to see what shape they’re in and what prospects they have for the near future. We’ll break down each team and evaluate how it is performing under its current coaching staff, looking at the state of the program before he/she arrived and comparing it to now while also looking at this season and beyond.
Next up: John Court’s gymnastics team.
How it looked before
The GymCats have been trying to get back to the days of old when the program was a regular threat in the postseason. Under the new postseason format, they had been stuck in the realm of the play-in meets.
The play-in meets consist of the bottom eight teams that qualify for postseason competition. The four winning teams advance to the second round of regional competition, which consists of eight teams at each site.
Since the new format was introduced in 2019, Arizona had qualified for the play-in all three times the NCAA championships were held by finishing with a national qualifying score between 29th and 36th. The GymCats had only advanced once and that was due to the declaration of a no contest when Temple had to withdraw in 2021 due to health and safety protocols.
Arizona finally broke through with an actual win in the play-in last season, defeating West Virginia in the Norman Regional. It was a big step forward for the program on the national level.
Arizona was eliminated as a team in the second round, but for the second straight season, the GymCats sent an individual qualifier to the national championships. In 2021, it was Malia Hargrove on floor exercise. Hargrove came close again in 2022, but it was Sirena Linton who did the job for Arizona on balance beam.
Linton made a big impact for Arizona, finishing in the top eight in the nation. It garnered her a second-team All-American honor, the first All-American designation for a GymCat since Chrissy Berg did it on uneven parallel bars in 2019.
Where things stand now
The GymCats have been a very young team for the past two seasons, so they return almost all of their routines for the 2022-23 season. The primary loss from last season is senior MacKinzie Kane, who was primarily a bars specialist but occasionally competed on vault, as well.
For the first time in years, the team will have both talented young athletes and a large group of experienced seniors who regularly contribute. Linton and Hargrove, Arizona’s last two athletes to reach nationals, obviously lead that group, but Libby Orman and Dani Nosek have been major contributors since they stepped foot on campus. Avery Stauffacher did not compete as much last season, but she was a mainstay on balance beam her first two seasons and has a career-high of 9.850 on that event. If Zaza Brovedani can return from an injury that kept her out last season, this group of seniors becomes even stronger.
As things now stand, Court and newly-promoted associate head coach Taylor Spears have recruited well for the past several years. There are strong gymnasts across every class, so the peaks and valleys shouldn’t be extreme as one class leaves and another takes over.
One big question
Arizona has had one “big question” for several years: can the team improve its vault scores enough to be a real threat in the Pac-12. Until that gets answered in the affirmative, the GymCats will struggle to get into the late session of the Pac-12 championships. That matters because the gymnasts and teams in that group are more likely to get the scores necessary to win conference titles and help their national qualifying scores.
In big meets last season, Arizona often started as a threat. This was typically when the first rotation was balance beam or floor exercise. When it finally came time for vault, the GymCats would fall out of contention.
Even in dual meets, vault was often their downfall. When the team visited Washington, it lost a meet that it should have won by scoring its only sub-49.000 score of the day on vault. Arizona’s vault score was lower than UW’s worst event score, which came on the bars. The story was the same against ASU. Arizona put up a meet score well over 196, but could not overcome the sub-49 vault score.
The program has shown that it can improve events. In the recent past, both floor exercise and vault were weak points for the team. Floor exercise has become a competitive event through recruiting the talent needed to earn scores above 49. Vault needs to make the same jump. With gymnasts like freshman Sophia Stephens, a former national champion on the event, that may lie in the not-too-distant future.