Gym Dawgs Home Opener Against Michigan This Saturday

Jan. 5, 2015

Last year, Georgia achieved its best finish since the 2009 NCAA championship season. In fact, in each of the last two years, Georgia has improved on its finish from the previous season, and the Gymdogs will rely on a talented freshman class and a collection of more experienced gymnasts to do the same in 2015.

“I’m excited about where we are,” said third-year head coach Danna Durante. “We feel good about the depth we have and what the freshmen bring in terms of their skill level. It’s exciting to see the skill level and the variety rise for our team this year.”

One of the keys to Georgia’s strong finish in 2014 was its performance on vault. Four of the team’s top six vault scores came in the last month of the season.

The Gymdogs will have several new faces on vault this season, including sophomore Kiera Brown, who is a candidate for the leadoff spot. Freshmen GiGi Marino and Natalie Vaculik, who along with Brown, perform a Yurchenko full – could see action early in the lineup.

Senior Sarah Persinger, who was in the vault lineup as a freshman and sophomore, will provide a veteran presence, as will junior Brandie Jayand her Yurchenko 1 ½, and senior Chelsea Davis. Jay and Davis are the returning All-Americans on that event. Beth RobertsRachel Schickand Ashlyn Broussard will provide depth for the Georgia vault squad.

The Gymdogs are hopeful that junior Brittany Rogers, who underwent offseason surgery, will be ready to return to the vault lineup at midseason. Georgia will also be without the services of 2014 SEC vault co-champion Lauren Johnson, who sustained a knee injury during the fall.

“We have tried to build more depth on vault,” assistant coach Phil Ogletree said. “We’ve relied on some of the upperclassmen to help the freshmen ease in their first season, so we’re looking for that group to grow in their confidence.”

The strongest event for Georgia a year ago was bars, and expectations are high on that apparatus again in 2015. The Gymdogs were ranked No. 1 nationally on bars for the last 10 weeks of the regular season and set an SEC Championship record with a 49.7.

A large part of Georgia’s success on bars last year was due to the consistency of the lineup from week to week. The Gymdogs used the same lineup in all 15 meets, and they will look to establish the same consistency this season.

Jay will likely remain in the No. 1 spot with her newroutine. According to assistant coach Jay Hogue, Brown, who has upgraded her dismount, picked up where she left off last season as a key player in the bars lineup.

New faces to the bars lineup could include Schick, Vaculik, and freshman Hayley Sanders.

Davis and Rogers will again solidify the end of the lineup with upgraded routines. Several other Gymdogs who train bars, including junior Whitney Kirby, will provde depth.

Said Hogue: “I expect this group to be as good if not better than last year. The lines are a little stronger. As long as we stay consistent, I feel like we can be the No. 1 team again on bars.”

On the balance beam, the goal for the Gymdogs in the offseason was to increase the difficulty and originality. As a result, Georgia’s beam lineup this season will feature wider variety and degree of difficulty in several routines.

“I’m excited about the depth, skill level and variety we have on beam,” Durante said. “Our job now is to continue to work on our consistency in every meet.”

Mary Beth Box, who was an All-American on beam last season and finished third in the country at the NCAA Championships, returns for her junior season. Durante says Box has the ability to be the No. 1 athlete in the country on the balance beam.

Also returning on the beam unit are Rogers, Brown and Broussard, who turned in a key performance in the NCAA Regional. Newcomers expected to contribute on the balance beam include Vaculik and Babalis.

A pair of seniors – Persinger and Davis – could become key parts of the beam lineup. Davis last competed on beam as a freshman in 2012.

“Sarah had a good fall, and she has been working incredibly hard,” Durante said. “Chelsea has been working hard and is very consistent, so we are cautiously optimistic about what that means for her. Even though she hasn’t competed in a meet in two years, she is a fighter and a competitor. We are excited about continuing to work with her, because she has such tremendous leadership and fight.”

In 2014, Georgia had more NCAA All-Americans on floor (3) than on any other event, and the Gymdogs return two of those gymnasts this year -Jay and Box. Persinger, who earned All-America honors on floor as a freshman in 2012, is expected to be back on that event for her senior campaign.

Floor was another event in which Georgia looked to add more difficulty and power. FreshmanGiGi Marino – whose strength is her tumbling – is poised to be a contributor as are Broussard and Brown.

Jay, who has a new middle pass, is a candidate to serve as the Gymdogs’ anchor. Juniors Box and Rogers performed a combined 24 floor routines in 2014. Others who will add depth on floor for the Gymdogs include Babalis, Vaculik, Roberts and Morgan Reynolds.

“Having great presentation and getting the crowd into it along with cleaning up our technique and landings were some of the things that we spent a lot of time on in the preseason,” Ogletree said. “We also wanted to get the routines ready to go earlier this year, and I think we’ve done that. Everyone is much more confident as a group, and you can see that when they warm up and as they train. We wanted for everyone to have more confidence when they go out there, without any question marks and hit just like the other events.”

Ogletree says a main focus in the preseason was to finish meets as strongly as the Gymdogs start them.

“Last year we started strong on vault and bars, and the finish on beam an floor may not have been quite as strong,” Ogletree said. “This year we want to leave the last two events knowing that we were as strong as when we started.”

Added Durante: “We want to be consistent. Every meet, every practice and every routine counts.”

UGA Sports.

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