Jeff Graba talks gymnastics with Lexus Demers
By Charles Goldberg
AUBURN, Ala. -- Jeff Graba doesn't see too many rookies heading to the NCAA gymnastics championships, except for maybe his team.
Except for maybe Auburn.
"We're the new kid at this party," says the Auburn coach who has taken his team to Fort Worth for a championship event that otherwise involves veteran teams that already know the way to the sport's main event.
Auburn is making its fourth appearance in the championships, and the first since 2003. Graba says the 11 other teams have missed going to the championships only three times, total, over the last decade.
The championships begin Friday with two six-team sessions. The top three teams in each session advance to the coveted Super Six session on Saturday when the national champion will be crowned.
Graba, for his part, is no rookie to the championships. He was on the coaching staff at Utah for five appearances. Auburn gymnasts Caitlin Atkinson and Bri Guy participated in the nationals in 2013 as individuals, though the Tigers didn't make it as a team.
Graba says Auburn will push the envelope with its routines to try to advance to the Super Six.
"I think we're talented enough to do it," he said. "If we perform like we're capable of doing, I like our chances."
Graba said if Auburn makes the Super Six, "I think it means we're a national contender, but I think we're already proving that."
Auburn broke multiple team records, qualified for the night session of the SEC Championships and finished second at the NCAA Regional it hosted to make the national championship meet. Graba acknowledges Auburn is the underdog, at least in experience, and that's why, after taking a conservative approach at the NCAA Regional, he says the Tigers will be bold.
And try to be cool.
"I think we're giving away our advantage if we let the anxiety get to us. The advantage is that there are no expectations to us," he said. "It should be easy for us for us to have a good meet and let it all hang out. There's no secret here: We're going to have to be extremely good for us to make Super Six. We're basically going to have to have the meet of our life."
That's because the championship field is formidable: Auburn is ranked eighth nationally, and there's No. 1 Oklahoma, No. 2 Florida, No. 3 Utah, No. 4 LSU, No. 5 Alabama, No. 6 Michigan, No. 7 UCLA, No. 9 Nebraska, No. 10 Georgia, No. 11 Stanford and No. 12 Oregon State.
Graba says Auburn's season has already been successful, and making it to the nationals makes it better.
"It means everything for this team. It's a big deal," he said. "It's everything we've been working for since I got here. It's been the mission for 4½ years to get the program to not where we squeak in, but make sure we earn our way in. I think the rankings and our performance show we're at the level finally where this shouldn't be a surprise to us."
Auburn is in a tough first-day session with Oklahoma, LSU, Alabama, Nebraska and Oregon State.
"We're fighting an uphill battle no matter which semifinal we're in. We have to be really good, and it doesn't matter who else is in our bracket. If we're not really good, we're not helping ourselves and we might need some help," Graba said.
Charles Goldberg is a Senior Writer at AuburnTigers.com. Follow him on Twitter: Follow @AUGoldMine