The Georgia GymDogs weren’t on the beam.
Friday night in the semi-finals of the NCAA Women’s Gymnastics Championships, the GymDogs suffered not one, not two, but three falls off the balance beam. Since they could only discard one score, they had to count two of those falls. And, as we all know, “You just cannot count two falls and get out of this meet,” head coach Jay Clark told Roger Clarkson of the Athens Banner-Herald. “It’s a shame. It’s disappointing. It’s an emotional thing for us right now. I’m trying to be very careful with what I say. But this team, in my mind, has been one of the most consistent teams in the nation all year. It was the one thing we had.”
Then Clark made an even more revealing comment: “We were never going to out-skill people, and consistency was our bread and butter, and it betrayed us tonight.”
That, in one single remark, shows the difference between the Georgia gymnastics program under Clark, and the program that became a colossus under Suzanne Yoculan.
The GymDogs under Yoculan went into meets with the confidence bred from knowing that if they hit their routines, they’d win. Simple as that. Didn’t matter if it was a dual meet against Kentucky, or the NCAA Super Six Finals. The GymDogs performed the most difficult routines in the country.
In fact, if there was criticism of Yoculan, it was that the routines were too difficult to hit under pressure. But how can you criticize 10 national championships?
Now, when you can’t out-skill the competition, it means that you have no margin for error. Now, that’s pressure. And that’s what did in the GymDogs. For the second year in a row.
They began the meet on the parallel bars, and right off the bat, Christa Tanella fell. Twice. But the GymDogs rallied, hit five straight routines, and tallied their season-high score.
When they played with fire on the balance beam, they got burned. Noel Couch led off and fell on her front toss, scoring a 9.25. That had to shock her teammates. Couch is one of the most reliable GymDogs, and has been counted on to post a solid leadoff score on beam.
Laura Moffatt came through with a 9.9, and Kat Ding scored a solid 9.85. But Kaylan Earls and Sarah Persinger, competing in their first NCAA championship, both fell, scoring 9.35 and 9.175, respectively.
And that was that.
“It changed the dynamic,” Clark told the Red and Black’s Elizabeth Grimsley, referring to Couch’s fall. “If you think about the next two, it was their first go- round this year. They didn’t push through. They weren’t finishing their skills. For a team that had not counted a single fall all year long — 13 straight weeks — everything pointed in the right direction, but it just wasn’t there.”
Moffatt agreed. “It’s so hard, especially on that event after a fall for your first up,” she told Clarkson. “Usually we can cover that, but tonight we weren’t able to get back into that mindset when we needed to, and it got us.”
Give the GymDogs credit for a strong finish. They had the third highest semifinal score on floor exercise, and the best score on vault.
“I’m proud of the way they fought the final two events,” Clark told georgiadogs.com. “They fought with a tremendous amount of pride and executed those two events. They understood what Georgia is supposed to be and they want to carry that mantle so bad. I think they are hurting right now, and I think we are just all disappointed.”
But Clark saw a silver lining. “Regardless of how today turned out,” he told Grimsley, “the program and what we’re doing is an improvement. We’ll be back next year.”
The improvement is difficult to see. One year ago, Georgia was bounced in the semifinals after three miscues on the floor resulted in scores of 9.425, 9.55, and 9.325. They don’t appear any closer to reaching the Super Six finals, which they made every year under Yoculan, from the introduction of the Super Six format in 1993, until her final year in 2009.
And, like last year’s team, this year’s squad opened and closed the season with similar scores. In their first meet, the GymDogs scored a 196.525. Friday night, they closed with a 196.5. They also scored a 196.575 at the SEC championships on March 24. As we wondered a year ago, shouldn’t a team improve as the season progresses?
Also like last year’s team, they couldn’t get past Alabama or Florida. They lost to both in dual meets, finished third behind both at the SECs, and finished behind both Friday night. The team that won five straight national championships before Clark took over now ranks as the third best team in its conference.
This might be consistency, but it sure isn’t improvement.