UK senior learned to love gymnastics

Dealing with little girls who have big dreams is part of the drill for any gymnastics coach.

Hillary Ferguson was 8 when she came under the guidance of Mo Mitchell, a University of Kentucky assistant coach who also handled younger athletes at All-American Gymnastics.

"I always knew that this kid had something special if we could just develop it. The caveat is 'get her to stay with the sport.' I swear she quit every summer," Mitchell said with a laugh. "But she stuck with it and it all paid off."

Ferguson, now 21 and a UK senior, will put her skills on display Saturday in the Wildcats' annual Excite Night. UK will meet Texas Women's University in Memorial Coliseum at 6:30 p.m., preceded by circus-themed entertainment.

Mitchell, now in his seventh season as head coach at UK, is counting on Ferguson.

A graduate of Madison Central, Ferguson is the only Kentuckian on the roster. She laughs when reminded about quitting as a youngster.

"Every season I would come in and I would sit down in his office and tell him that I didn't think I was going to come back next year," she said. "He was actually really good — he would always give me a couple weeks off and ... then I would come back refreshed."

Much has changed since last season.

Ferguson has been UK's most consistent all-around performer over the last three years, winning 17 event titles. She has career bests of 9.9 on vault, 9.875 on uneven bars, 9.8 on beam, 9.925 on floor and 39.325 in all-around.

Ferguson, coming off a pair of off-season surgeries, will not compete on the bars.

"We never recruited her for bars," Mitchell said. "She only competed on bars her first (three) years because our depth was so horrible in that event. Now ... she's three or four people down the depth chart."

The surgeries came in June (groin) and August (hip).

"They just went in and kind of cleaned me up and fixed my whole hip area," Ferguson said. "Injuries that I had been fighting the last couple of years. It just needed to be done."

She resumed training only in late November, so she says it's difficult to say what is her best event at the moment.

"But I've always loved floor, and I will always think that's my best event. ... I get to give something to the audience and I get to perform," Ferguson said. "Nothing compares to that."

An exercise science and pre-physical therapy major who will graduate in May, Ferguson packs plenty of pizzazz in a 5-foot-2 frame.

"Her floor's always been dynamic because she has just incredible tumbling," Mitchell said. "Floor, she just shows it off. She gets to show who she is and express herself."

A young woman who is living a big dream.

■ Mitchell will count on sophomore Whitney Rose and junior Andrea Mitchell (no relation) in the all-around.

"I think they will battle meet in and meet out," Mo Mitchell said. "They're both phenomenal athletes."

UK finished 8-19 last season. Last in the seven-team Southeastern Conference Championships, UK was ranked 22nd nationally at the time. The other six SEC teams were among the top 11.

So Mo Mitchell is thinking positive about this team, which is 27th in the pre-season rankings.

"They've worked extremely hard this fall and raised our level of expectations. I think that everybody will see that when they come to Excite Night," he said. "This is not the Kentucky team you saw last year. This is a new and improved Kentucky team with (many of) the same athletes."

Gone from last year's squad are Heather Hite (now an assistant coach), Natalie Rubinstein and Bridget Carreiro. New to the team are Caitlyn Ciokajlo, Rachel Sarnovsky and Caitlin Satkowiak.

"Of those three freshmen, one of them may be in the starting lineup," Mitchell said. "But the rest of the team, they're kids who were here before. We just decided we're tired of losing, we're tired of falling all over the place. We're going to make a difference. Our seniors are going to step up and make a big impact."