NORTH LITTLE ROCK — The No. 13 Arkansas Gymbacks came in fifth overall at the Southeastern Conference Championships with a historically high score of 196.500 March 19 in the Verizon Arena.
During the first session, the No. 6 seeded Gymbacks beat out No. 8 seed Kentucky and No. 7 Missouri who scored a 196.250 and a 195.750, respectively. However, the Hogs fell just shy of No. 5 Georgia, who barely beat them out with a score of 196.850.
“We were consistent,” head coach Mark Cook said. “We went 24 for 24, which means we didn’t have a major fall. We did have a few errors here and there on all of our events. We competed pretty tough and pretty well.”
In the evening session, No. 1 Florida took home the title with a score of 197.775, outscoring No. 2 Alabama by only .025. The No. 3 seeded LSU Tigers posted a 197.500 and No. 4 seeded Auburn came in fourth with a 196.950.
With their score in the SEC Championship, Arkansas outscored its previous best in the event, a score of 196.400 in 2013.
On beam, sophomore Paige Zaziski earned second on the rotation with 9.850 and senior Erin Freier posted the only other score above 9.800 with a 9.850. Junior Samantha Nelson dominated the event, reaching a career-high and tying two Kentucky gymnasts for first during the first session with a 9.900.
“She (Nelson) had been really great for us. She has been really solid and is always aggressive when she goes up there,” assistant head coach Samantha Snider said. “For her to finally put it all together like that, is what we have been waiting for, and I know it was really a proud moment for all of us as a coaching staff and for her as well.”
Before hitting the beam, the Gymbacks took on bars, where senior Keara Glover kicked off the event with a 9.875. Not far behind were Freier, junior Amanda Wellick and sophomore Braie Speed with 9.800s. Zaziski finished out the event with a 9.875, tieing for second in the session.
The team racked up points on the floor with five scores at 9.800 or higher. Senior Sydnie Dillard led off with a 9.825 score to a sassy number that had fingers snapping, and, with some fabulous flips, senior Stephani Canizaro also earned a 9.825. Freshman Makenzie Anderson tied her career best with 9.800. Setting the metaphorical bar even higher, Nelson and Wellick brought the event to a close for the team with a pair of 9.875s that had the crowd cheering at each stuck landing and brought the Gymbacks to a total score of 49.200. Their scores tied for second among all gymnasts in the afternoon session.
The girls led the arena in an Arkansas Razorbacks cheer as they made their way over the their last event: vault. After a faltering start, Zaziski, freshman Sydney McGlone and Wellick were able to post 9.850s while Speed added a 9.800. Anderson reached a career-high of 9.775 as the final Hog performer.
The Hogs finished their regular season with a 7-5 dual-meet record. Zaziski, Wellick and Nelson all earned spots on the All-SEC Team.
Back in Fayetteville, the Gymbacks have their sights set on their 13th-consecutive trip to the NCAA Regionals this Saturday.
The solid performance at the SEC Championships leaves the team with only minor tweaking to attend to, Cook said. On bars, the focus is on perfecting handstands and sticking better step landings. He is also working with “those individuals who had some uncharacteristic mistakes to not have those,” he said. On vault and floor, the Gymbacks must continue to work on landings, staying in bounds during routines.
The event will be hosted by No. 19 Iowa at 4 p.m. in the Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City. Arkansas will also compete against No. 1 Oklahoma, No. 12 Nebraska, Kent State and Central Michigan.