Feb. 11, 2010

 

By Amy Farnum
NCAA.com


The University of Arkansas women's gymnastics program is only in their eighth season of competition, but in that very short time, the Razorbacks have quickly developed into one of the top teams in the nation.

Since starting in 2003, the UA program has earned NCAA Regional bids six times - every season since 2004. The Razorbacks have advanced to the NCAA Championships three times, and claimed their first-ever spot in the NCAA Super Six in 2009. With every season, another goal has been accomplished and this year's squad is looking to continue that trend.

The Razorbacks currently hold a No. 3 national ranking with an average score of 196.120, and have improved their scores weekly, including a school-record score of 197.025 to defeat Auburn on Feb. 5.

"When we've gone out on the competition floor the last few weeks, we've really been able to relax a little bit and carry over our training to competition," said co-head coach René Cook, who shares the helm with husband Mark Cook. "They have high expectations for this year and are extremely focused and motivated. That's really coming internally, especially with the senior leadership. They want to make sure they don't leave any stone unturned this year and it's carrying through to the whole group."

The Razorbacks' four seniors - Amy DeFilippo, Casey Jo Magee, Sarah Nagashima and Michelle Stout - are definitely looking to leave their mark on the Arkansas program.

"They didn't want to follow in someone else's footsteps," said Cook. "They wanted to make their own statement. This group - the senior class as freshman just missed the national championships and that was a pretty defining moment when we were edged out by two-tenths. They didn't want that to happen again. In the last few years as they've matured, there is an attitude that they can do whatever they can set their minds to. They've kind of pulled the coaching staff along the last couple years because we're a little more skeptical sometimes."

Magee, a four-time All-American, knew that she would have the chance to make history if she came to Arkansas, and she has. In 2008, Magee and Stout were the Razorbacks' first gymnasts to earn All-America honors.

"I wanted be a part of a team that was on the rise," said Magee. "I thought it was a really cool opportunity to help get the team headed towards being a top program."

The native of Eugene, Ore., is on track for another stellar season, and is coming off a school-record all-around score of 39.625 against Auburn last week. She also tied her career-high and school-record score of 9.95 on the beam against the Tigers, and posted a career-best 9.925 on the bars.

"The unique thing about Casey Jo that really makes a difference on this team is that she has improved her gymnastics every single year," said Cook. "This year, especially, she has learned some amazingly difficult skills that normally you don't find 21-year-old gymnasts learning. Because she is super-motivated, and in the best shape of her life conditioning-wise and strength-wise, she's been able to learn these more difficult skills to increase her difficulty on the floor. It's motivating for the rest of the team. It produces an environment of growth - sky's the limit. Her whole approach to gymnastics is infectious to the whole team."

Magee is thrilled that she and her teammates are beginning to see the results of their hard work.

"We set some extremely high goals because we're willing to do everything we can to accomplish them," said Magee. "It was a great feeling breaking the 197 mark - we've been trying to do it for awhile and it was awesome. But, there are still some improvements we can make and that's really a confidence booster - that we weren't perfect on every routine and still broke the 197 mark. We have a lot of talented girls on this team and they definitely push me to get better as an individual. It's my senior year and I want to do the best I can, and they really are helping me get there."

After two ultra-successful home meets against Kentucky and Auburn in the last two weeks, the Razorbacks head to Athens, Ga., for a match-up with five-time defending NCAA champion Georgia. The Gym Dogs are ranked No. 9 in the nation, and following a slow start to the season, they posted a 197.200 against Kentucky last weekend. The meet will be a key Southeastern Conference match-up between two of the nation's top programs coming off season-high performances.

"People are starting to have respect for our program and realizing that we're definitely a top team and a team to beat," said Magee. "Although Georgia hasn't had their best season so far, they did break the 197 mark last week as well. I think that this is a going to be a tough meet, and a pretty close competition. We just need to stay focused on ourselves and not get distracted by the fact there are 10,000 fans or we're going up against a team that has won 10 national championships."

"We know we have to be able to compete on the road and this is a great test," said Cook. "We try not to focus on the scoring, because it is so subjective. You can go into different environments and it can be all over the place. We just try to focus on competing to our best ability. We want to prove to ourselves that we can compete as well on the road as we can at home. This is a great opportunity in front of a great crowd."

Arkansas faces Georgia on Friday, Feb. 12 at 7:30 p.m. ET. Georgia leads the series 16-0.