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Arizona GymCats bounce back from tough season opener with 1st place finish in quad meet

The Arizona GymCats celebrate after Jessica Castles performs. Jan. 14, 2023 at McKale Center.
Photo by Rebecca Sasnett / Arizona Athletics

The Arizona GymCats proved that their season-opening struggles on the uneven bars were a fluke by hitting all six bar routines and finishing first in their home-opening quad meet. The team improved to 4-2 on the season by outpacing Illinois, Texas Woman’s University, and Bowling Green on Saturday afternoon.

It was a comeback and an upset of sorts. Illinois came in ranked No. 15 after the first week of competition. Arizona had fallen to 28th after being ranked No. 25 in the preseason poll. The Illini led the meet until the final rotation when the GymCats used a 49.200 on floor exercise to push past Illinois, who was in the process of scoring 49.000 on the vault.

The GymCats finished with a 195.825 overall, edging out the Illini’s 195.725. Texas Woman’s came in third with a 193.750, while Bowling Green was fourth with a 192.050.

“It’s going in the right direction, and we picked up three W’s which is always nice,” Arizona head coach John Court said.

The vault was Arizona’s lowest-scoring event at 48.600, the only event where the GymCats did not score at least 49. Court said that the team is still being hindered by injuries on that event, and that’s just something they will have to wait out.

Still, the team had some strong performances on the event. Malia Hargrove finished tied with the Ilinis’ Arielle Ward for first overall with a 9.825.

When they moved to the bars, though, they showed that they can put difficulties behind them. Last week at Ohio State, the GymCats had three scores of 9.225 or lower and were forced to keep a 9.225 and a 9.075. This week, the lowest score was a 9.600, and they were able to drop that.

“Our confidence just got better this week,” said sophomore Alysen Fears. “We worked on our breathing as a team, worked on our confidence. We worked on not getting in our heads all week, because we’ve already put in the work. We put in the physical work in the gym. It was just time to put in some mental work, and I think we did a really good job in that, and it showed tonight.”

Fears has hit her bar routines both weeks but improved on the 9.825 she had last week by matching her career high of 9.900.

“It feels great,” she said. “I’m still aiming higher. I don’t want to be stuck at that score.”

Court said he’s not really worried about the score, since that’s the subjective part of the sport.

“Somebody’s 9.9 is someone else’s 9.95,” Court said. When we go back and we look at the film, if she’s hitting all of her handstands, sticking her dismount, her release is big, that’s the subjectivity on the score. And we’ll look at that, but it’s a pretty good starting point for week two.”

He wasn’t surprised that they were able to bounce back from last week, either.

“We used a lot of the same lineup,” Court said. “A couple of changes but they came out there and they hit. [Assistant coach] Dallas [Becerra] does a great job with them. Today’s result, that’s no surprise. They do that every day in the gym. Now they brought it out here.”

Court also had a great deal of praise for junior Jessica Castles, who was chosen Arizona’s gymnast of the meet by her coaches. Castles performed three events and helped get her team back on track after Malia Hargrove fell on the balance beam. Castles’ 9.825 was second on the event for Arizona, trailing only Sirena Linton at 9.850.

“Jess showed up tonight, that’s for sure,” Court said. “I didn’t play her on floor last week because I wanted to save her for this week. So, we used [Elena] Deets last week. They’re both obviously capable. Jess is doing a new last pass, and she’s a player on floor. 9.875, that’s right around her range. She did a really good vault for her, and she followed a fall on balance beam. You have a lot of experience that really came into play.”

Castles finished third overall on the balance beam and second on floor exercise.

Arizona had three gymnasts win their events. Hargrove tied for the win on vault with a 9.825. Fears had the top spot on bars with her 9.900, and Linton’s 9.850 was first on beam.

Hargrove also won floor exercise with a 9.900. She finished third in the all-around with a 38.825, hindered only by the fall on balance beam. Mia Takekawa of Illinois won the all-around with a 39.250 and was followed by teammate Abby Mueller with a 39.150.