It was a postseason of twists and turns for the Arizona GymCats this year. It ended with a tiebreaker between Louisiana State and Michigan knocking out the final Arizona gymnast still standing.
The GymCats finished fourth in the second session of the regional semifinals with a 196.975. It was their second-highest score of the season, trailing only the 197.275 they had against Brigham Young at their last home meet of the regular season. The Michigan Wolverines and the hometown Denver Pioneers advanced to the regional finals out of the session.
Sophomore Emily Mueller finished 10th out of 18 gymnasts who competed in the all-around in the session. Her score was boosted by a career-high 9.875 on the uneven bars.
Friday’s meet didn’t end the suspense for the GymCats, though. Senior Malia Hargrove tied Michigan’s Naomi Morrison for the regional vault title. Both gymnasts earned a 9.950, the highest score across both sessions of the regional.
Our vault queen left no doubt #BearDown pic.twitter.com/l1QOULEJ0B— Arizona Gymnastics (@ArizonaGymCats) April 2, 2023
That score put them in line to advance to nationals if their team didn’t qualify, but Morrison held the tiebreaker between the two. Hargrove and Arizona would have to wait. If Michigan was one of the top two teams in Sunday’s regional final, Hargrove would be on her way back to nationals for the second time in three years after qualifying on floor exercise her sophomore season. The No. 3 Wolverines would be facing No. 6 LSU, No. 11 Oregon State and No. 14 Denver for those top two team spots.
It looked good for Michigan and, by extension, Hargrove out of the gate. Michigan had a sizeable lead after the first rotation. After the second, they were tied with LSU for first, but it still looked like they would advance.
Then, something amazing happened for Denver. After the first two rotations, the host team was in last. It wouldn’t be a surprise if it ended there since it came in as the lowest-ranked of the four finalists. But the Pioneers believed they had more in them—and they proved it.
Michigan wound up the meet before everyone else because it was on vault. The scores were decent but not spectacular. They were enough to keep the Wolverines in front of Oregon State, though.
Denver kept getting bigger and bigger scores on the bars. When the Pioneers were done, they had jumped over both UM and OSU. The Beavers were eliminated, but the Wolverines still had their hopes and Hargrove’s hopes alive. If LSU got a 9.975 in its last floor routine, it would be the second qualifier for nationals. If the Tigers got a 9.950, they would tie UM but advance anyway because of the tiebreaker rules; Michigan would be forced to count two falls earlier in the meet that are eliminated from the scores unless they are needed for a tiebreaker.
LSU got the 9.950 to tie UM. With Michigan’s falls now included in the scores, it was over for most of the Wolverines. One it wasn’t over for was Morrison, who won the tiebreaker over Hargrove to advance to nationals on the vault.
It was the last in a series of postseason twists for Arizona. The GymCats’ postseason looked like it was headed for an automatic berth in the semifinals for the first time since the NCAA postseason format changed. That’s what finishing No. 28 in national qualifying scores usually means.
Instead, the GymCats were put in the first round, a play-in round to get into the field of eight at each regional site, while No. 29 West Virginia was given the bye. Geography was the reason for that first twist. The Mountaineers were placed in the regional in Pittsburgh because of NCAA rules that affect teams’ placements in the postseason.
Even as the top-rated team in the opening round, the GymCats didn’t get a break. Arizona was set to compete against No. 35 North Carolina instead of No. 36 Boise State, which was the last team in the field. BSU was sent to Los Angeles to compete against No. 33 Brigham Young instead of to the closer Denver site.
The GymCats put all of that aside. Besides, they knew they could do it. They beat West Virginia to advance to the regional semifinal last season.
“I think over 90 percent of our team did the same thing last year to play in,” Arizona head coach John Court said. “So, they know what it takes to perform back-to-back.”
Despite it being difficult to come out of the opening round and make it all the way to the regional finals, there are some advantages to competing on the first day. One of them is just getting used to the environment.
“I think competing the day before definitely gave us a little bit of an edge,” Mueller said. “We got to feel the equipment one day and compete on it.”
The opening round did not go well for the GymCats. They came into the NCAA postseason with an NQS of 196.570 and a meet average of 196.204. They scored 197.275—their highest score in 19 years—on Mar. 10. Less than a month after that high point, they scored a 196.050 on Friday. It was their fifth-lowest score of the season.
Fortunately for them, the night went even worse for the Tar Heels. It looked bad for Arizona when vault ended with a 48.800, but UNC only did slightly better on bars with a 48.900. Then, the Heels followed up with a 48.800 on vault compared to the GymCats’ 48.925 on bars.
Arizona didn’t trail again, although it also didn’t earn a great score on beam, which has been its strongest event all season. The team wrapped things up on a high note with a 49.325 on floor exercise, though. That put them in the right frame of mind for the second night of competition.
Arizona once again proceeded with the “Olympic rotation,” starting on vault, then proceeding with bars, beam, and, finally, floor exercise. It started with a solid 9.775 from Caroline Herry on the vault, but it was when Hargrove came up that the team really took a leap on its way to a 49.125.
For the second time this season, a television commentator saw Hargrove vault and wondered where the deductions were. The score was big at 9.950, but it wasn’t the first time that she could have received a 10 on her vault without it being considered unreasonable. For a team that has been inconsistent on vault and considering that the regional included gymnasts like Olympian Jade Carey, it was a huge accomplishment for a GymCat to tie for the regional title on the event.
Arizona stayed steady on bars which have been a problem for the team all season. While they have very good gymnastics, staying on the apparatus has been a challenge. It was again for Elizabeth LaRusso, but her teammates picked her up and they were able to drop her 9.225 and end things with a 49.100. Once again, it was an improvement over the previous night.
They kept climbing on the beam where no one scored below a 9.800. The 49.300 team score gave them plenty of confidence heading into their final event.
On floor, Arizona looked every bit like a top team. Four of the six gymnasts scored a 9.900, including sophomore Alysen Fears who was performing just her second floor routine in college. Her debut was the day before when she earned a 9.875. Mueller and Herry both scored 9.850. The end result of 49.425 was the team’s second highest floor score of the season.
The postseason may not have ended with a Cinderella run. Unlike the last two years, Arizona will not be sending a gymnast to nationals. However, it did show glimpses of what is in store for the program.
They ended the NCAA postseason with the 21st-ranked NQS. That’s an improvement of seven spots from where they were after the Pac-12 Championship. It’s also five spots better than they ended last season.
It was also good for a team that relied heavily on juniors and underclassmen this season.
“People got some experience, warming up here and competing,” Court said.
Of the gymnasts who competed at regionals, only Hargrove and Sirena Linton are seniors and neither one has ruled out coming back next season for their extra COVID-19 year. Arizona could be returning all 24 of the routines that competed, including the last two gymnasts to advance to nationals.
Next year, the team will bring in the No. 25 recruiting class according to College Gym News. That group includes four-star recruits Abigayle Martin and Sophie Derr and three-star recruit Ainsley Greever. Unranked Sophia Maisel will join that group. The 2024 class is currently ranked No. 17. It includes four-star Jessica Janicke and three-star Aubrey Krohnfeldt.