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Kentucky gymnastics set to rock Rupp and make history — again

Kentucky gymnastics prepares for Rupp Arena Excite Night, welcomes new freshman

University of Kentucky gymnastics head coach Tim Garrison along with gymnasts Mollie Korth, Alex Hyland, and Ella Warren talk about preparing for Excite Night at Rupp Arena, and welcome in freshman Ella Warren to the team.
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University of Kentucky gymnastics head coach Tim Garrison along with gymnasts Mollie Korth, Alex Hyland, and Ella Warren talk about preparing for Excite Night at Rupp Arena, and welcome in freshman Ella Warren to the team.

How do you top your best season ever? For the Kentucky gymnastics team, it’s about not being satisfied with making history.

It’s time to make some more.

“I think we’re ready to go out and kill it this year,” said Mollie Korth, who took the Southeastern Conference by storm in earning 2017 SEC Freshman of the Year honors and multiple All-America nods. “I’m ready for more records to be broken, more things to happen. We have a lot of goals this year that I think we’re going to accomplish. We’re just ready to get started.”

It starts with a sold-out Excite Night meet Friday at Rupp Arena in what should be the biggest edition of its annual showcase yet. Southeast Missouri State, Ball State and George Washington are also competing.

A record 7,836 people turned out for last year’s Excite Night in Memorial Coliseum. That mark figures to be broken in Rupp. The upper deck will be curtained off, but there’s room for more than 9,000 in the lower bowl. Reserved tickets sold out more than a month ago. The meet will be shown online via ESPN.com/Watch.

“I got a text from one of our administrators that said, ‘Hey, would you be interested in doing this (in Rupp)? We’re thinking about it.’ Within about three seconds I responded and said, ‘Yes!’” said Coach Tim Garrison, in his sixth season at UK. He has led UK to the NCAA regionals each year. “The seats are steep there in Rupp. Everybody’s right on top of you. I think it’s going to be a great environment for a meet.”

UK returns every major contributor from the squad that finished as the No. 12 team in the country last year and earned the Cats a No. 2 seed in the NCAA regionals, its highest ever. UK is ranked No. 10 in the NCAAGym.com preseason poll.

For those who can’t make it to Excite Night, UK’s remaining home schedule in Memorial Coliseum will feature some of the best gymnasts in the nation. The Cats will host No. 2 Florida on Jan. 19, No. 16 Georgia on Feb. 9, No. 17 Missouri on Feb. 23 and No. 22 Ohio State on March 2.

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Junior Alex Hyland worked on the floor during a University of Kentucky gymnastics practice held in the Nutter Fieldhouse Gymnastics Practice Facility on the UK campus in Lexington, Ky., Wednesday, Jan. 3, 2018. The team is coming off the most successful season in program history and will be holding Excite Night in Rupp Arena for first time. Charles Bertram cbertram@herald-leader.com

the Cats set a number of milestones in 2017, including the highest team score ever with a 197.475 against six-time national champion Alabama in UK’s first win against the Tide.

In addition to Korth, UK brings back juniors Sydney Dukes, Alex Hyland and Katie Stuart, a veteran core of all-arounders who helped

Dukes earned first team All-America honors in 2016, while Hyland landed a 9.95 on beam at the 2017 SEC championships to win UK’s first title there in more than two decades. Dukes and Hyland each qualified for the NCAAs individually in 2016. Korth and Hyland went as individuals last year. They’re hoping their experience will help the whole team advance this season.

“We have a lot to feed off of,” Hyland said. “We’re really confident in everything we’re doing, and we know that we can do it and do it better now.”

Korth won the all-around at last year’s Excite Night in her first home meet.

“Going into that environment and competing, I thrived on that,” Korth said. “I love the pressure. I love competing in front of a bunch of people. I love to show it off.”

Korth earned 19 individual meet titles last year and went on to finish fourth in bars and sixth in the all-around at the NCAA championships.

Her 39.625 against Alabama is the highest all-around score by anyone at UK not named Jenny Hansen. Hansen, the only gymnast with a banner hanging in Memorial, was an eight-time national champion from 1993 to 1995. She will be among 70 former UK gymnasts recognized Friday night.

Added to some of Friday’s UK event lineups could be freshman Ella Warren, who graduated from high school in November and, like Korth last year, enrolled early to begin competing immediately. She committed to the Cats in 2015.

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Freshman Ella Warren, with head coach Tim Garrison on the left, smiled during a University of Kentucky gymnastics practice held in the Nutter Fieldhouse Gymnastics Practice Facility on the UK campus in Lexington, Ky., Wednesday, Jan. 3, 2018. The team is coming off the most successful season in program history and will be holding Excite Night in Rupp Arena for first time. Charles Bertram cbertram@herald-leader.com

“I saw the growth of everybody and all the scores were going up (last year),” Warren said ahead of only her fifth practice with the team. “I saw they got 197. I’m just really excited to be here.”

Garrison said Warren probably won’t jump into every event lineup like Korth did, but he’s been impressed with her practices.

“She’s a beautiful gymnast. I think she’s going to be amazing, but we’ll let her kind of get into college and get a few routines under her belt and see where we go,” he said.

Building on the momentum UK has established and continuing to make history begins with each gymnast, Garrison said. UK was undefeated at home, but it could have scored better on the road. UK earned a national seed, but a higher seed might have meant a shorter trip than going across the country to Washington for regionals.

The overall goals will come if the small goals are met. Setting records starts with talking about “what we need to do in this training session to not give away more than .15 in deductions in this routine.”

“You enjoy (the accomplishments), but at the same time, if you’re not continually getting better and better and better and using that to step up another level … then ultimately, at the end of the day, you’re going to slide backward … ,” he said. “We keep our goals very, very close. We keep our goals to something we have an impact on every single day.”

Excite Night

When: 7 p.m. Friday

Where: Rupp Arena

Tickets: Sold out

Online: ESPN.com/Watch

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