March 21, 2013
By Charles Goldberg
AUBURN -- So many underclassmen and then a slow start to the season. Auburn gymnastics coach Jeff Graba didn't panic. He figured his team would right itself by gaining confidence.
He was right.
Auburn turned in a competitive score against Georgia, scored a school record against No. 5 LSU and has produced a steady stream of good scores to send the Tigers to this week's SEC Championships with the idea it can compete with the hierarchy of the league.
Auburn, with underclassmen figuring to take 16 of its 24 slots in the vault, beam, bars and floor, will start the championships as the fifth seed at 2 p.m. Saturday at the Verizon Arena in Little Rock.
Can Auburn make a statement?
"Our team isn't focusing on that because I think we're a little too young for that, but I do think that's there. If we're on our game, a statement gets made," Graba said.
That's a long way from where Auburn started, but close to when it turned the corner in its third meet of the year against Georgia.
"I think the Georgia meet was the first time the team seemed to settle down and start to do what we saw in training," Graba said. "With so many young people, the first two meets were a blur for them. We've just gotten better each meet. Our hit ratio and the execution of our routines have improved throughout the season."
A month after Georgia, Auburn beat LSU with a school record score of 197.175, the first of four straight wins to close out the regular season.
All the while, the confidence grew.
"And confidence with a team with basically half our members are new," Graba said. "A lot of our early struggles were people gaining trust not only in themselves, but in the people around them. You not only have to have trust and confidence in this sport, not only in yourself, but the person right before you or right after you. If you make a mistake, you've got to trust the other people will be able to lock down and get the job done."
Graba gives credit to seniors Petrina Yokay
and Toi Garcia
. The juniors, then all the sophomores and freshmen filled in, including SEC Freshman of the Year candidate Catlin Atkinson.
Now, it's the SEC, the toughest of test before heading off to an NCAA regional.
"Half the Top 15 or 16 teams are taken up by SEC teams. That means you can be middle of the road in the SEC and still be one of the top teams in the country," Graba said. "For us, that's good. It's important that you compete against the best every week because it tests your team and it pushes people to get better. That's why the SEC is so dominant.
"We're approaching this as the lead up to our regional meet. In the SEC, we want to be sharp. We feel like we're in a pretty good spot right now. "This is our first true test. We've got to be on our game. Before, all regular-season scores is what mattered and the win-loss didn't matter as much. Now, it's all about whether you can beat those teams. "
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