By Charles Goldberg
AUBURN, Ala. -- Florida's reputation in gymnastics will precede itself when it visits Auburn on Friday night. The Gators are the defending national champs.
Auburn's Lexus Demers says she and her teammates will try to put that aside.
"It's our team that matters," she says. "We care about the other team, of course, but we don't want to get worked up on how they're doing. We're just trying to do the gymnastics we can do."
Such is a sport in which you can't play defense.
"You can only control your part of the outcome," said Auburn coach Jeff Graba. "It's a tougher dynamic than going out and hitting somebody. In gymnastics, they won't allow us to kick somebody off the beam."
Auburn started the season on a positive note when it defeated Texas Woman's University 194.875-189.825 last Friday. Demers had career bests on balance beam and floor exercise and tied her career best on vault.
"It seems as I had but I know I'm capable of doing more. I'm just waiting for the opportunity," she said.
Friday's 7 p.m. meet in Auburn Arena brings a much bigger challenge.
"I think we're pretty confident because last Friday went so well, and I know this Friday will be a lot of fun," Demers said. "The atmosphere in the arena will be outstanding. I think it's going to be a really fun meet no matter what."
Graba said he was encouraged by last week's opener, including how his freshmen and redshirt freshmen performed for the first time. Auburn showed it by naming freshmen Kullen Hlawek and M.J. Rott gymnasts of the week, though veterans Caitlin Atkinson and Bri Guy had the highest overall scores. Atkinson won the all-around.
"The people who had been through it before did a good job, and I think that's why it was our most successful kick-off meet. In a lot of ways it was a success," Graba said.
The exception was balance beam.
"We had three pretty good events, and with a young squad, that's a real victory for us," he said. "The beam is an area where I think nerves can get to you. We had a great crowd there, and we had a lot of young people who hadn't been in front of them before, and we're just chalking it up to that. They've settled down again in practice."
But now it's Florida, the first of many SEC challenges.
"Yes, it's the No. 1 team in the country. Yes, they're extremely talented. But if we stay in our system and stay focused, we're a pretty good team, and I think we can compete with anybody in the country if we're on our game," Graba said.
"You can't manufacture the stress level these guys bring. The No. 1 team in the country or Alabama or Georgia or any SEC team brings an inherit stress that you're to get at the SEC Championshps, that you're going to get at the NCAA regionals, that you're going to get at the nationals. If that's our goal, to compete and get to the Super 6, then we need rise to the occasion."
Lexus Demers is cheered on in Auburn's opening-season win (Anthony Hall photo)
Charles Goldberg is a Senior Writer at AuburnTigers.com. Follow him on Twitter: