Caitlin Atkinson will help lead Auburn against Alabama on Friday (Anthony Hall photo)
By Charles Goldberg
AUBURN, Ala. --
The lineup is set. They're coming off a successful month competing on the road. They're ready for Phase 2 of the season.
No. 12 Auburn gymnastics is ready to see where it stands when it faces old rival and No. 5 Alabama at 7 p.m. Friday in Auburn Arena.
Auburn coach Jeff Graba has pointed to this, the second part of his schedule, as preparation for the SEC meet and the NCAAs. It starts with a team that the Tigers know well. The interest will be high.
"All we've got to do is go out there and get the biggest win in Auburn gymnastics history," Graba said. "Our highest win against any ranked team has been a No. 5 team, so we'd have to match that. We'd probably going to have to break our scoring record, and we'd have to beat a team that has beaten us many straight years."
Graba has been buoyed by Auburn's three-week road trip to LSU, where it had its highest road score ever; to Arkansas, where it won for the first time in school history; and to Air Force, where it won last week and Graba settled on a lineup he'll try Friday against Alabama and perhaps beyond.
It's been a mix of veterans and freshmen who have gotten Auburn this far, starting with Bri Guy, who Graba said has "done a phenomenal job for us."
"The upperclassmen have taken the younger one under their wings and helped them through this road stretch. Obviously, MJ Rott has done a good job for us and Kullen Hlawek have stepped up as freshmen. We needed those two to do it. But our upperclassmen -- Megan Walker, Kait Kluz, Catlin Atkinson, Bri Guy -- they have been our team in the right frame of mind to be successful. Now, they're trying to teach the young ones what is like to go against Alabama."
Graba said Alabama come in with a "huge pedigree, a lot of history."
"We're the upstart of the neighborhood, and we're trying to shake things up a little bit. For us, it's not about letting the Alabama thing get out of control in our minds. It's about us getting better; it's about us focusing on what we've got to do, because we can't compete against them if we don't do our jobs. I believe if we settle down and do what we're good at, and do it really well, we can compete with anybody in the country. If we can stand up to Alabama, we can stand up to anybody in the country."
To get here, Graba had to mix his newcomers with his veterans.
"The first half of the season is to experiment with the lineup and getting to know everybody," he said. "We're supposed to be settling down in the second stage here. We've got about three meets, maybe four meets, until we get to SECs and regionals where we're we need to be pretty predictable, pretty dialed in."
To push Alabama would be a good place to start.
"Alabama is busing fans down, so we're telling our people to buy tickets early," Graba said.
Charles Goldberg is a Senior Writer at AuburnTigers.com. Follow him on Twitter:Follow @AUGoldMine