Freshman Kullen Hlawek has competed on two events for most of 2014. (Tony Hall photo)
By Charles Goldberg
AUBURN, Ala. --The injuries mounted, and Auburn gymnastics kept competing, through the loss of Bri Guy, through the injuries that have slowed Caitlin Atkinson and Kelsey Kopec, through the SEC Championship and now to NCAA Regionals.
Coach Jeff Graba says his team should be hardened to adversity and ready for the NCAA regional meet at LSU at 4 p.m. Saturday.
"They've known it. They've adjusted. Everybody stepped up," Graba said. "This team has been practicing fantastic.
"We've got talent. We've had a tough-enough year that everybody has been able to contribute. We're just going to have to rely on young people. That's worked out relatively well so far."
Auburn was enjoying one of its best starts to a gymnastic season until Bri Guy blew out both her Achilles on Feb. 14 and leg injuries caught up with Atkinson. They were Auburn's national contributors in the regional last year, and now only has Atkinson has a chance to compete this weekend. MJ Rott, a freshman who won All-American honors, also missed time.
Injuries? Auburn is used to them.
"The Missouri meet, we didn't have MJ. The Alabama meet, we pulled MJ off the floor. At SECs, we pulled Caitlin off the floor," Graba said. Ironically, he added, "all three of those meets were good meets for us."
Auburn knows about competing at LSU. It had its best-ever road score there earlier this year, a 196.85. LSU won that event. But the score stands, and winning at LSU isn't a requirement Saturday, either. Auburn has to only finish second to make it to the NCAA Championships. The Tigers will try to finish in the Top 2 against No. 3 LSU, No. 10 Stanford, No. 20 Arizona plus Kent State and Iowa State.
Finishing second "has to enter the equation," Graba said.
"I told the girls we can't hide it from you: We need to beat No. 10 Stanford. Auburn has only beaten a Top 10 team seven times in its 40-year history. We've got to do it eight, which means we've got to have a heck of a night."
The chance to do it, to even upset LSU, comes in at place where Auburn did well.
"I do think our team is taking confidence from that first away meet we had down there," Graba said. "They like the equipment. The advantage for us is we know the area. We have our system down. We don’t' have to practice as much on the equipment. At least our young team is comfortable there."
Auburn is hoping Atkinson will be able to participate in at least some events, though Graba is pointing to having only eight competitors participate in the 24 routines.
"We'll just have to plug people in," Graba said. "I don't think it's going to hurt us score-wise quite as much, though it is the toughest meet of the year."
Graba said the team has gotten a boost from freshmen Rott and Kullen Hlawek.
"They have just been amazing, especially these last three or four weeks when we've needed them to step up," Graba said. "We were hoping not to put them in this position, but they've done a phenomenal job."
Charles Goldberg is a Senior Writer at AuburnTigers.com. Follow him on Twitter:Follow @AUGoldMine