The road wasn’t easy, but the Gym Dogs accomplished what they needed to this season and that was a return trip the NCAA Championships.
Kat Ding brought home the uneven parallel bars national title. Cassidy McComb finished first in all-around at the Southeastern Conference meet and took third at nationals.
Any one of those would make a season in most places, but expectations run higher at Georgia, which is a blessing and a curse.
Jay Clark’s second season as head coach had much more injury drama than his first, but it had a better conclusion. Clark struggled much of the season to find healthy bodies to fill out practice, but the team managed to hold its own against some of the best squads in the country.
Georgia’s season ended on a negative note with its second-lowest score of the year in the preliminary round of the NCAAs, failing to make the Super Six.
The Gym Dogs’ priority for next season should be improving the prime-time performance level. But when you look at the overall body of work, their highs outnumbered their lows.
Clark loses two seniors, who were not only major contributors, but provided the team’s heart. McComb had the best season of her career, and Hilary Mauro fought through a fraying Achilles tendon to help guide the team to nationals.
The Gym Dogs’ future looks brighter than their recent past. Ding will look to defend her national championship as a senior; sophomore Noel Couch is the most reliable performer of the returning veterans; and freshman Lindsey Cheek recovered from her midseason blues for a strong finish at nationals.
Ding’s 2011 season started with a stress fracture scare in her femur that knocked her out of practice much of the early part of the season.
The injury turned out to be a stress reaction, which is a precursor to a fracture so rest and scaled-back training saved her from what might have ended her year before it started.
Ding responded brilliantly on bars. She ranked among the top two or three most of the season and hit at least 9.9 in her last seven meets. Ding scored 9.9125 in the individual national championships, the only person to eclipse the 9.9 barrier.
She was a two-event performer most of the season, but she probably could have done more if not for the injury. Georgia needed numbers in all events, and she would have been a candidate for more than bars and vault.
Georgia might have had a forgettable qualifying round, but Ding’s national championship gave the Gym Dogs an upbeat ending and momentum going into the offseason.
The Gym Dogs returned to nationals, but their results upon arrival were unacceptable. They started slowly on what should have been their best event, bars and ultimately collapsed.
Georgia’s focus wasn’t at the level it should have been. The Gym Dogs committed at least seven major mistakes in 24 routines during the preliminary round of the national championships.
Falls, poor execution and the inability to finish what they started plagued the Gym Dogs from the beginning.
Clark praised Georgia’s practice form throughout the season and the team seemed encouraged by its workouts leading into nationals. But his team left its best efforts at home and stumbled through a competition when it should have been at its sharpest.
Georgia overcame slow starts at the SEC Championships and the Athens Regional,but that didn’t happen at nationals. Once the boat sprung a leak, it sank.
Underperforming in the most high-profile meets was a problem all season. Injuries and inexperience explained some of it, but lack of concentration explained more.
For Georgia to challenge for titles, it must instill some discipline for those wandering minds.
Georgia’s injury list read like a phone book at times. Some weeks, Clark found it easier to count who wasn’t hurt than who was.
McComb, Couch and Christa Tanella were the only ones of the 14 Gym Dogs who didn’t miss significant time because of health. The Gym Dogs’ ailments ranged from multiple sprained ankles that go with the territory to the bizarre like Shayla Worley’s kidney stones.
Freshman Kaylan Earls set the precedent when she ruptured her Achilles tendon a week before the first meet. Soon afterward Ding had her stress fracture scare; Gina Nuccio sprained her ankle; and Mauro’s Achilles tendon soured and those were just the most serious.
The season ended with Cheek spraining an ankle during warmups at SECs and Nuccio jamming her chronically painful back during regionals.
Managing injuries became as much of the gym routine as practicing dismounts, and the lost reps made a difference.
Ding and Nuccio went from being three-event performers to two-event performers to save wear and tear. Since floor exercise puts the most stress on the Achilles tendon, Clark held Mauro out of much of her training and road competition in maybe her best event.
Georgia heads to the offseason in a much better frame of mind than in 2010 when it missed nationals for the first time in 26 years.
Clark’s list of issues to address doesn’t seem as long as last year. But some of those problems, like in-meet focus, are vital.
The Gym Dogs not only survived their troubles, but they took a step forward and that’s what matters in the big picture.
More experience, fewer injuries and better concentration in critical situations should make a major difference next season.