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Two of the greatest gymnasts in Kentucky history take the floor for final Excite Night

Kentucky gymnastics senior leaders set for Excite Night

Kentucky’s Alex Hyland and Sidney Dukes talk about their amazing careers as part of a history-making gymnastics team ahead of Friday’s Excite Night at Rupp Arena.
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Kentucky’s Alex Hyland and Sidney Dukes talk about their amazing careers as part of a history-making gymnastics team ahead of Friday’s Excite Night at Rupp Arena.

When Alex Hyland and Sidney Dukes take the floor for their final Excite Night on Friday night in Rupp Arena, they will do so having already secured their legacy as two of the greatest gymnasts in Kentucky program history.

And their senior season is just getting started.

“They are part of a senior class that’s been transformational for this team,” UK gymnastics coach Tim Garrison said.

Hyland and Dukes have been the cornerstones of UK’s historic run of success, helping bring the Cats their first-ever national seeds in the NCAA regionals the past two years, and their first-ever team appearance in the NCAA Championships last year.

“I think both of us are extremely grateful for the opportunity that Kentucky gymnastics has given us,” Dukes said. “I know we’ve had success, but we can attest to our teammates always being there for us and helping us through anything along with our coaches and support staff.”

While the incomparable Jenny Hansen, a three-time national all-around champion and five-time national event champion, owns every UK individual record for her performances in the early 1990s, the achievements of Hyland and Dukes also pepper UK’s record book.

“They are so willing to do what it takes to improve. And they don’t even realize it necessarily,” Garrison said. “… They’re so dedicated to the team. They’re so dedicated to the sport. They’ve developed new routines as seniors, and that’s just a perfect example of what I’m talking about it.”

Kentucky’s Alex Hyland celebrated after her beam routine during Excite Night at Rupp Arena last year. She won the event. Alex Slitz aslitz@herald-leader.com

Six UK gymnasts in the team’s nearly four-decade history have earned All-America honors. Two of them are Hyland (2017) and Dukes (2016).

Three UK gymnasts have won SEC Championships event titles. Two of them are Hyland (2017, beam) and Dukes (2018, floor).

Fourteen UK gymnasts have earned All-SEC honors. Hyland and Dukes have done that every year, surpassed only by Hansen’s four consecutive honors.

Finally, 15 UK gymnasts have earned spots at the NCAA Championships as individual qualifiers. Hyland has done it twice, in 2016 and 2017; Dukes did it in 2016.

But for all their individual accolades, the two speak of the close friendships they’ve formed with their four fellow seniors and other teammates and the things they’ve been able to do together. Even after spending hours upon hours together in the gym, they still love to hang out with everyone, drink coffee and tell stories about their dogs.

“We’ve been through everything together,” Hyland said.

Teams featuring Hyland and Dukes own the top nine team scores in UK history and 17 of the top 19. In 2017, UK set its all-time highest team score of 197.475 against Alabama.

“It’s really cool to be a part of everything that’s going on here,” Hyland said. “We’ve set so many records as a team, and it’s really great that we can be two of the leaders of that team.”

A team’s resume for college gymnastics’ postseason is a “regional qualifying score” average of a select number of meets. Since that system has been in place, UK has averaged more than 196 points four times, including the past three years in a row. The past two years, that’s ranked UK 12th in the nation, earning consecutive No. 2 seeds at regionals. Last year, UK converted that seed into a spot in the NCAA Championships.

Kentucky’s Sidney Dukes performed her floor routine during Excite Night at Rupp Arena last year. Dukes shared the floor title in the SEC Championships in 2018. Alex Slitz aslitz@herald-leader.com

“Each year we’ve had that stepping stone,” Dukes said. “I think this year is going to be another one of those stepping stones. We made it to nationals last year, and this year the format’s a little different for postseason. So we’re kind of doing a bracket like softball where there’s regionals and super regionals. This year, our goal is to go super regionals and beyond, which would be amazing.”

The Cats rank No. 16 in the nation after two meets this season and face No. 14 Arkansas on Friday night. Hyland won four events, including the all-around in UK’s first meet at Texas Woman’s University, while junior Mollie Korth, a two-time All-American making her own mark on UK history, won two events last week at a quad meet in Illinois.

“We’re really excited to get the season started, especially at home,” Hyland said. “We’ve only had two meets and we’re still getting into the competition season rhythm.”

This year’s team figures to benefit greatly from the experience of Hyland, Dukes and the other veterans, who at regionals last year were two-tenths of a point out of earning a spot to the NCAA Championships going into their final event. They rallied with “an amazing bar rotation” to advance.

“As a team, we knew what was on the line, but I don’t think anyone let that get in their heads,” Dukes said. “They were like, ‘OK, I just have one job to do, and that’s all I can do in this moment.’ I think everyone, just before they saluted (the officials), had that thought that ‘this could be (over), or it could be something amazing.’

“And our confidence helped turn it into something amazing.”

Excite Night

No. 14 Arkansas at No. 16 Kentucky

When: 6 p.m. Friday

Where: Rupp Arena

TV: SEC Network

Tickets: Limited reserved seats available at Ticketmaster.com