Despite an up-and-down season in 2017, the youthful Auburn gymnastics team capped the year with three-straight season high scores and finished No. 15 in the national rankings. Now looking ahead to 2018, the Tigers are itching to get back to competition and continue to build on last year’s successes.
“The silver lining from last year is that we finished very strong with a very young team,” head coach Jeff Graba said. “We were without our top all-arounder for most of the year and with all of the adversity, we were able to develop a lot of depth. I think the returners are bringing a hunger from last year and even though we are technically even younger this year, we will have some significant big meet experience on this team.”
That experience will be needed in 2018, as the regular season Southeastern Conference slate will once again prove to be one of the toughest in the nation. Thankfully, the No. 14 Tigers will host four of its seven SEC meets at home in Auburn Arena, including contests against three Top 15 teams in Florida, Alabama, and Kentucky.
Home advantage has been and will continue to be a big factor for the Tigers this season as the squad hopes to add more sellouts (7,424) to its growing list. The program once again reached new heights in season ticket sales, eclipsing 1,625 so far. That totaled bested the 2017 record of 1,591.
“Anyone who has been to one of our home meets knows that we have a phenomenal home advantage,” Graba said. “This is the biggest benefit we can bring when we go up against perennial powers like Florida and Alabama. Our crowd is so fun for us to compete in front of and can be so intimidating for the opposing team. The SEC is the toughest in the country as every team finished 2017 in the Top 18 and therefore, we need every advantage we can get.”
Auburn will rely on the leadership of its two seniors and six juniors to bring the squad to the next level. Highlighting the group is redshirt junior Abby Milliet, who returns follow a season-ending injury early in 2017. Joining her are juniors Taylor Krippner, Emma Engler, and Samantha Cerio. The trio competed in three events each last season.
“I think our junior class is well prepared to lead this young team,” Graba said. “They have a lot of competition under their belts and have a chip on their shoulder at this point. The actual athletic ability of the junior class is amazing and they will do a great job of leading us this year.”
The sophomore quartet of Katie Becker, Gracie Day, Kendal Moss, and Emma Slappey also brings a wealth of experience to the lineup. Day and Slappey were All-SEC performers, while Becker competed in the All-Around at the 2017 NCAA Gymnastics Championship in St. Louis.
“This class had to compete in some high-pressure situations as freshmen and did a great job,” Graba said. “They really found their stride at the end of the last season. I expect them to share in the leadership role of this team and they will need to continue to rise to the occasion.”
Auburn added six freshmen for 2018 and the group is expected to not only bring a new level of talent to the team, but also a new level of competition in practice.
“I’m very excited for this class,” Graba said. “They are very talented and bring a lot of big meet experience to the table. They are a great mix of power, poise and personality and will be fun to watch.”
Highlighting the events this year for the Tigers will be bars and beam as each returns five of the six possible slots. In addition to Milliet’s talent at both, Auburn will look to Cerio, Engler, and Krippner to once again excel on both apparatuses, while Slappey will continue to bring grace to beam.
“We return all but one bar routine from last year and with the addition of our freshmen, we should be as good, if not better, on this event,” Graba said. “Beam is similar to bars and we brought in quite a few that can compete at a high level in this event. It will be a fight each and every week to see who competes.”
Vault also returns a handful from last season, including the powerful junior A’Miracal Phillips and Day. With the power and skill added from the freshmen corps, the event has a wealth of potential.
“We were an under-powered vault team last year and I think this event is where we have the most room to improve,” Graba said. “We should be vaulting with a lot more power and that should help our scoring potential tremendously.”
With the departure of three seniors from last season, the floor lineup is expected to heavily lean on the team’s youth.
“I think we brought in quite a bit of power and grace this year to floor,” Graba said. “And adding Milliet back into the mix, it should be a fun event to watch. We will be young, but talented and I’m very excited to see what happens once the season starts.”
Overall, the 2018 edition of Auburn gymnastics is a balanced combination of upperclassmen leadership and raw talent and energy from the newcomers. And with another challenging schedule on tap, the Tigers have the ability to return to the national stage come April.
“This team has really impressed me so far,” Graba said. “We have a tremendous amount of potential this year and they have the drive and work ethic to realize that potential. I am extremely excited for 2018 and I hope our fans are just as excited. We’re looking forward to our home crowd advantage this year.”