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Just-arriving freshman lights fire under already highly ranked Kentucky gymnastics team

Alex Hyland spotted her landing as teammates Mollie Korth, Aubree Rosa and Sidney Dukes look on during the University of Kentucky Gymnastic team’s practice at their practice facility in the Nutter Field House on the UK campus in Lexington, Ky., Tuesday, January 17, 2017.
Alex Hyland spotted her landing as teammates Mollie Korth, Aubree Rosa and Sidney Dukes look on during the University of Kentucky Gymnastic team’s practice at their practice facility in the Nutter Field House on the UK campus in Lexington, Ky., Tuesday, January 17, 2017. cbertram@herald-leader.com

They’ve called it Excite Nite for years. And whether the Kentucky gymnastics team has been up or down, the home opener has always been a good show. But this edition of the Cats, ranked No. 9 in the nation, is already doing things to truly get excited about.

Last week against No. 3 Florida, Kentucky posted its best team score in program history (196.950). Freshman Mollie Korth, who’s only been in Lexington a little more than three weeks, posted the Cats’ sixth highest all-around score ever (39.575). That put her on the same list with Kentucky gymnastics legend Jenny Hansen, who owns the top five marks and three NCAA all-around titles.

Korth, an early enrollee from Cambridge, Wis., was the 2016 Junior Olympic national floor champion and was second in the all-around. She won the all-around in each of Kentucky’s first two meets, tying Florida’s nine-time All-American Kennedy Baker last week. That also earned her SEC Freshman of the Week honors.

She had all of four training sessions with the team before their first meet at Eastern Michigan.

“She’s been a breath of fresh air, I tell you what,” said Coach Tim Garrison, in his sixth season at UK. “We have a great team, anyway, but she’s come in and given us an extra shot in the arm. … Her personality is very bubbly, which fits right in with this group, but when she gets on the floor and she starts competing, man, she is all business. She is ready to go and that’s such a great attribute to have when you’re competing in the SEC.”

The SEC has eight schools competing in gymnastics. All eight are ranked in the top 25. Kentucky’s opponent Friday is No. 11 Auburn, a team that made it to last year’s NCAA Championships semifinals. Korth relishes the opportunity to compete in the SEC.

“I’ve always wanted to be in the SEC ever since I was little,” she said. “I’ve always wanted to compete in college, and I’ve heard the SEC is the best in the nation, and it’s true. Being able to be a part of this conference is really fun.”

Korth joins a roster that includes sophomores Sidney Dukes, a first-team All-American, and Alex Hyland, who, like Dukes, was an NCAA Championships individual qualifier last year. With 16 gymnasts on the roster and only six spots in the lineup for each event, the competition to earn a place in the rotation is fierce and a necessity if the Cats are to reach their goal of earning a team spot in the NCAA Championships.

“It’s great to have competition in the gym,” Dukes said. “It just makes us a better team. Without girls coming in, we really wouldn’t be able to hit the great scores that we did last week. It’s a blessing, and it keeps everyone on their toes.”

For Korth, team competition represents a welcome change from the isolation of individual competition she dealt with in the Junior Olympic circuit.

“I’ve always been excited about competing with a team and having everyone cheering you on,” she said. “It’s a little more pressure competing for a team and trying to do your best for everyone else.”

Garrison switched a few spots in the rotation between the first and second meet as he works to assess his gymnasts and put the best possible team on the floor.

“It’s critical to have that competition in the gym because they feel like they’re on stage when they get up and do a routine on an event (in practice),” Garrison said. “They know they are competing for their spot in that weekend’s meet. That’s important because that’s added pressure that we don’t have to put on them. We can simulate (as coaches) to the best of our ability, but we can’t simulate competition.

“If there is somebody right behind you ready to take your spot if you’re not achieving? That’s pressure.”

Thursday, the Cats move from their Nutter Field House practice facility to the meet site at Memorial Coliseum, where Garrison will set his tentative lineup. After warmups Friday, he might change the lineup again to go with the “hot hand” against Auburn.

“It’s going to be an exciting meet,” Garrison said. “Just the environment alone is going to be fun. But to have a team of that quality come into Excite Nite and the crowd that we’re expecting to have? It’s going to be electric in there. And I’m excited to see how our team handles being at home, being in front of our crowd.”

Excite Nite

No. 11 Auburn at No. 9 Kentucky

When: 7 p.m.

Where: Memorial Coliseum

Tickets: General admission available, but advance purchase recommended at UKathletics.com.

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