Gym Dogs find rhythm with new coaching staff

Change swept through Georgia’s gymnastics program during the summer.

Now, the real business of preparing for the upcoming season has started so the team can truly settle into a new way of operating under first-year Gym Dogs coach Danna Durante.

“It’s a good change I think and I think dealing with this change has brought us closer as a team,” Gym Dogs junior Cat Hires said. “It’s different, it’s definitely different. Everything is moving faster. We’re adding more drills. We’re going back to basics and doing some different stuff. But we’re doing OK. We’re having a good time and we’re having fun together. We’re having fun learning the coaches and they’re having fun learning about us. It’s an experience growing your relationships and everything.”

Georgia has begun its four-month preseason workout camp in preparation for the January opener against Oklahoma and it’s happening under the watch of a brand new coaching staff headed by Durante.

“It’s been an overall learning experience for them and for us,” Durante said. “It’s been weeks of them learning us and us learning them. It’s been about helping them learn to trust us and it’s going very well. They’ve been working very hard and now we’re into official practice and it’s really exciting to see the progress they’re making.”

Durante was a long-time assistant at Nebraska with Dan Kendig. She spent one season as the head coach at Cal before taking over Georgia in May. Durante replaced Jay Clark, who resigned following the 2012 season. Longtime Gym Dog assistants Julie Clark and Doug McAvinn did not return and were replaced by former Denver assistant Jay Hogue and former LSU assistant Phillip Ogletree, which gives the team an entirely new braintrust.

“It’s definitely different because we didn’t lose just one coach, we lost all three,” Gym Dog junior Lindsey Cheek said.

“It was a relief to finally get into the gym and start working out after everything that happened during the summer. It’s good to finally get together as a team and go through this together. Even this summer, we weren’t all here together. Change is always difficult. But now that we’re all here together, it’s definitely making it easier.”

Durante was hired after the end of the spring semester when many of the Gym Dogs had already scattered for the summer. The team did not reassemble in its entirety until the beginning of the fall semester in August.

“The first team meeting was really helpful because we kind of feared the unknown,” Georgia junior Kaylan Earls said. “We didn’t really know what to expect and what the coaches were expecting. We knew as a team that we’d stick together and kind of get through it. But we just didn’t know for sure. At this point as gymnasts, we know what we have to do, but you need that little bit of assurance that your coaches give you. I was a little nervous but I knew everything would be OK. I’m excited about the season coming up. The time is coming fast. It won’t be long before we’ll be actually competing.”

The fall semester began in August and official preseason practice started on Sept. 18. The season begins on Jan. 5 against Oklahoma at Stegeman Coliseum. Georgia returns two first-team All-Americans — sophomore Chelsea Davis (uneven parallel bars) and Cheek (vault). Georgia also brings back last year’s second-team All-Americans with junior Noel Couch (vault), junior Shayla Worley (balance beam), sophomore Sarah Persinger (floor exercise) plus Davis on vault and floor. Laura Moffatt, a walk-on who made second-team All-American on beam last year, will not compete this season but remains with the team as a manager.

“They’re all very talented athletes and we knew that coming in,” Durante said. “They’re working very hard for us and we’re asking them to do a lot of different things because we’re a different staff. They’ve really accepted that and done what we ask. They feel good. They feel like their gymnastics is in a very good place right now. We’re happy with what we see. Now it’s also about continuing to push but not go too far because October is always a delicate balance.”