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Arizona GymCats hope to ride experience to new highs in final season of Pac-12

The 2024 Arizona GymCats are introduced before their annual showcase on Dec. 16, 2023 at McKale Center
The 2024 Arizona GymCats are introduced before their annual showcase on Dec. 16, 2023 at McKale Center
Photo courtesy of Arizona Athletics

The Arizona GymCats gave a peak into the season ahead with their annual showcase on Saturday afternoon. The two things that stood out the most—depth and experience—give the athletes hope that they can reach mileposts the program hasn’t seen for some time as they enter the final season in Pac-12 competition.

“For the senior class, I want to do things we’ve never done before,” said junior Alysen Fears. “I want to score multiple 197s with them. I want to make it farther in the Pac-12, score higher. I want to maybe make it to the night session (of the Pac-12 Championships) with them because that’s something they’ve never experienced. There’s so many of them, and I think we need to leave them with some good and influential memories.”

Scoring 197s would help the team reach the goal of finishing in the top four of the conference and making the night session of the Pac-12 Championships. At last year’s senior day meet against BYU, the GymCats scored their first 197 since 2015. The 197.275 they earned that night last spring was the third-highest score in program history and the highest since 2004.

If the GymCats can accomplish even some of those things, Fears will likely be a big reason why. She dealt with injuries last season that limited her to bars and balance beam for most of the year, but she’s back in full health now and ready to be an all-arounder. She will join redshirt senior Malia Hargrove as the team’s four-rotation athletes. That’s just one thing that will be new for her.

“I’m maybe anchoring beam this year and bars,” Fears said.

Fears will also be helping the group of ten juniors and seniors introduce a talented group of freshmen to the world of NCAA gymnastics. That group of six rookies comprise a class that was ranked No. 24 by College Gym News. At least one of them landed at Arizona partially because of the welcoming environment created by Fears.

“She was just so welcoming and very encouraging,” said freshman Sophie Derr. “And she’s majoring in criminal justice, which is also what I’m majoring in. So it just made me feel a little better that I had somebody to ask questions to and everything like that.”

It probably doesn’t hurt that both Derr and Fears are known for their great work on bars. Fears was the 2021 Level 10 national champion on the event before coming to Arizona. Derr was the 2021 state champion on bars in the highly competitive state of Texas.

“I love bars,” Derr said. “It’s always been my favorite event. I think it’s probably because it’s always been the easiest for me to learn skills and pick up on quickly.”

Derr hit her bar routine at the showcase, showing a great line and sticking her landing in her first appearance in McKale Center. Her coach wants her to build on that, especially when it comes to the mental aspects of performing.

“She had a great McKale debut and I’m very proud of her,” said Arizona head coach John Court. “Sophie can obviously do gymnastics. The biggest thing is her confidence. We all believe that she can do it. She has to believe more that she can do it.”

Derr joins Tirzah Wise, Ainsley Greever, Haley Havenor, Sophia Maisel, and Abigayle Martin in the group of newcomers. The format of the event showed just how much depth that group adds to the GymCats this year. Despite having a few athletes sitting out for injury, they were able to break down into two teams for a traditional Red-Blue format. Until recently, they didn’t always have the kind of quality depth to do that.

Senior Jessica Castles sat out for precautionary reasons, but Court stressed that it was not something that would keep her out of competition when the season starts.

“Her back was a little bit sore, so just didn’t want to risk anything,” Court said. “But she’s been she’s been training fully in the gym. It’s nothing that I’m concerned about.”

Castles is a big contributor for Arizona, regularly competing in three events. She has career highs of 9.900 or better on vault, beam, and floor exercise.

Seniors Taylor Raskin and Madison Courney were also out for the showcase. Their prognoses are not quite as promising as Castles’. Both have minor knee injuries. Court said that he hopes to have them back by the end of January or the beginning of February.

They will join the other six seniors in leading the younger gymnasts into the demanding world of college sports knowing that they’ve left it better than they found it.

“I think we’re super excited to kind of have a big class in kind of leadership roles,” said senior Caroline Herry. “I think we’ve all kind of seen this program grow over the last four years, so we’re super excited. We’ve got some good freshmen this year, so we’re really looking forward to a good year.”