|Updated: 1/04/2012 1:37 pm
||Published: 1/04/2012 1:33 pm
FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – Arkansas’ gymnastics team opens its season on Friday against a stacked field featuring a few familiar opponents at the Cancun Classic in Cancun, Mexico.
The meet is scheduled for 7 p.m. (central) at the Hilton Cancun Golf and Beach Resort.
The Razorbacks, who are coming off their third top 10 national finish in the last four years, are ranked No. 11 in the GymInfo preseason rankings, but they are far from the only ranked team in the meet.
The Cancun Classic also includes Southeastern Conference rivals No. 12 LSU and No. 17 Auburn, in addition to No. 19 Arizona, No. 25 Iowa and San Jose State, which is receiving votes.
“Preseason training seems to be long, but it’s a process you have to go through,” co-head coach Mark Cook says. “The girls worked hard. I was really impressed with their intensity and focus, and we are really ready to start competing. This is a starting point. It’s a good opportunity to see some other SEC schools and see how they are doing, but more importantly to see how we will respond in a situation that’s a little more intense than a dual competition.”
“We started to gear up in the summer by revamping our conditioning, and the girls really got a lot of benefit out of that,” co-head coach René Cook says. “Going into fall training, you could see it pay off in the difficulty of their skills. Right now, we’re not going to get any better until we have competition in a meet. We want to go down there and hit our routines and be consistent, and not count a fall. It’s the same thing we talk about all the time. We want to set ourselves up for a strong beginning to the season.”
Arkansas was 16-10-1 a year ago, tied for the SEC regular-season title, won the NCAA North Central Regional, advanced to the NCAA Championship for the fourth straight year and tied for ninth in the nation.
Eleven returnees are back from that squad, including four All-Americans – senior Jaime Pisani, sophomore Katherine Grable, and juniors Amy Borsellino and Kelci Lewis.
Pisani, the 2011 South Central Regional Gymnast of the Year, was a first-team All-American on floor, and second-team in the all-around and on beam. She is the school record-holder with nine total All-America honors.
Grable was a first-team selection on floor and second-team on vault. She became the first freshman in school history to earn first-team All-America honors.
Borsellino was a first-team All-American on vault and Lewis a second-team selection on floor.
Other returnees are seniors Mariah Howdeshell and Genny Salvatore, juniors Jordan Salsberg and Amanda Siebert, and sophomores Shelby Salmon, Scarlett Williams and Bailee Zumwalde. The newcomers are freshmen Stephani Canizaro of Nesbit, Miss., and Sammy Kolbas of Naperville, Ill.
“This is about confidence-building,” René says. “They’ve made their routines hundreds of times in the gym where they are comfortable, but not in front of judges and a crowd and against another team. Making your routines and executing at a high level builds confidence and each week you hope to gain confidence so by the end of the season you’re ready for the postseason.”
Against the field in Cancun, Arkansas has won five straight meetings against Arizona, three of the last four with Auburn, three of the last five with a tie against LSU and is 1-0 all-time against Iowa. This will be the first meeting with San Jose State.
“We’ve been training for four months,” Mark says. “There’s nothing like competition to give yourself a sense of urgency and refocusing. It’s a motivational tool to be sharp and efficient.”
Arkansas’ lineup is expected to include three all-arounders in Pisani, Salsberg and Grable, but others are expected to make major contributions.
“Jaime, Katherine and Jordan are our all-arounders, and Katherine is probably the best she’s ever been so that’s exciting,” René says. “It’s the same for Jordan. She has increased her level of difficulty and her confidence, and she’s a completely different athlete than she was last year. Scarlett Williams is definitely going to surprise people with her improvement and Shelby Salmon as well. I’m proud of the changes they’ve made, and the mental preparation and focus they’ve brought to the table to improve their gymnastics.”
“We have three strong all-arounders in Jordan, Katherine and Jaime,” Mark says. “They are going to lead, but we have a lot of supporting cast people who are doing a phenomenal job on different events. We have a lot of great routines. Kelci Lewis is one of those with some really dynamic things she is doing.”
Following the Cancun trip, Arkansas opens its home schedule on Jan. 13 with an SEC meet against Kentucky at 7 p.m. in Barnhill Arena. Following the Kentucky meet, LSU visits Fayetteville for a 7 p.m. meet on Jan. 20. During the LSU meet, in honor of the 10-year anniversary of the gymnastics program at Arkansas, past teams and letter winners will be honored and recognized.
In nine years, the Razorbacks have earned eight NCAA regional bids, won two NCAA regionals, advanced to the NCAA Championship five times, reached the NCAA Super Six, finished in the top 10 in the nation three times, finished ranked in the top 15 seven consecutive seasons, and produced 28 All-America selections and 13 NCAA individual event finals appearances.
In 2011, in addition to winning the NCAA North Central Regional and tying for ninth in the nation, Arkansas recorded two wins over No. 1-ranked Florida, beat No. 4 Georgia, and set school records with seven dual-meet wins and four road wins.