In front of the largest crowd yet assembled for an Excite Night, the Kentucky gymnastics team shook off some nerves and put up its best opening-night score ever to cruise to victory over three other schools.
“The atmosphere was amazing,” Coach Tim Garrison said of his team’s first appearance in Rupp Arena on Friday before an announced crowd of 10,006. “It was everything we hoped that it would feel like. … The fans were awesome. The arena felt like a postseason meet. For me, it felt like a postseason environment.”
And that might have been the plan all along. Aside from the spectacle of playing in Rupp with its giant HD video boards, its fancy LED ribbon graphics and an adoring crowd, the venue provided the atmosphere UK will face when the big meets come at the end of the season.
“It’s amazing. Rupp Arena, first time? You can’t really beat it,” sophomore Mollie Korth said. “I’m glad we got to be in here. I hope we can do it again next season.”
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Kentucky’s 196.075 team score bested its next closest quad-meet competitor by more than a point, and was encouraging not only because it was UK’s best season start, but also because the Cats felt like they could have done so much more. Ball State took second with 194.475, George Washington placed third with 193.775, and Southeast Missouri finished fourth at 189.675.
“Our nerves definitely got the best of us, which I think is unfortunate,” said Korth, who missed her grab on a big release move on the bars and fell flat to the floor. “But I think we’re ready to get back in the gym and work harder and come back at Arkansas next week and do even better.”
The slip on an event where she placed fourth in the national championships last year was uncharacteristic and emblematic of the misses here and there where Kentucky might have done even better.
“I just overthought it a little bit,” Korth said. “I was really nervous. I was trying to get my nerves out, and I guess that’s how I did it.”
Korth still managed to take a share of the vault title on the night along with teammate Danaea Davis, and she recovered from the bars slip to land a 9.8 routine on beam. But the error dashed her hopes of repeating for the Excite Night all-around title. She finished fourth with a 38.60. George Washington’s Cami Drouin-Allaire won the all-around with a score of 39.10.
“She doesn’t normally make that mistake,” Garrison said. “(But) she went right over and rocked a beam set … . And we needed that, because we had a mistake later on in the rotation.”
When Kentucky reached the floor exercise, the final event of its night, the anxiousness faded and each gymnast put down a solid mark, capped by junior anchor Sydney Dukes’ 9.9, the highest score on any event.
“It felt really, really good,” Dukes said. “I was anchor first year for floor, so I think it’s just the hard work I put in last season and this season that helped me get to where I am.”
UK’s Cori Rechenmacher shared bars honors with Ball State’s Maddie Macdonald, each with a 9.85. UK’s Alex Hyland, the reigning SEC champ on beam, scored a 9.85 Friday for her win.
With Excite Night out of the way, Kentucky turns to a grueling SEC schedule beginning Friday at Arkansas.
“I’m extremely encouraged about this team by what they did tonight and how much they left out on the floor and still scored pretty darn well,” Garrison said. “We’ve got a lot more in us.”
Kentucky recognized 67 returning gymnasts from years past Friday, including three-time NCAA all-around champion Jenny Hansen.
“Excite Night when I was competing was an awesome event and that’s what made it so much fun,” Hansen said. “What Tim (Garrison) has done to bring it here to Rupp Arena is monumental.”
Hansen owns most of Kentucky’s individual records, appearing multiple times at the top of multiple lists. Last season, Korth put up the best all-around number in a generation. It’s seventh behind six Hansen marks.
“I’m pretty proud to be at the University of Kentucky and to have competed here,” Hansen said, “and to see my teammates (here tonight) and to see how much of a team it really is, how we’ve become such sisters no matter where we are. These girls (UK’s current gymnasts) are just starting that. And they’re bringing it to the next level.”
Kentucky at Arkansas
8 p.m. Friday