Kullen Hlawek and Auburn signaled their arrival at the Super Six in the NCAA gymnastics championship last season
By Charles Goldberg
AUBURN, Ala. -- The longest season in the history of Auburn gymnastics was finally over, a Sunday night flight back from its second-best finish in the NCAA Championships was complete, and rest was seemingly the order of the day.
Maybe for you. Not for Auburn.
"Everybody was pretty much beaten up," coach Jeff Graba remembered, "but that Monday morning, over half the team showed up volunteering for stretching and to maintain things. We're still in that mode. They're coming in, jockeying for position because they know talented girls are coming in."
Auburn competed in its first NCAA Super Six in 22 years in April, and has been working ever since trying to get back.
"I've been part of teams that nobody showed up all summer, and I've been part of teams that the whole group has been here. This team is leaning toward that. They're all pretty serious right now," Graba said.
Auburn broke or tied 52 school record, saw three gymnasts win All-American honors and Graba named SEC Coach of the Year for the third time in the last four years. Auburn defeated seven Top 10 teams, matching the total of Top 10 wins in the program's history.
The Tigers finished fifth in the nation in attendance.
Auburn will carry all of that into its next gymnastics season, which formally starts in January. It will be a different journey this time around.
The attention from the Super Six, Graba said, was "a complete shock to all the girls."
"We had a system for how to compete against the highest level, we had a system for all the stuff we were trying to anticipate, we even had a system to make Super Six. But you can't create a system to prepare them for afterwards.
"I think they handled it well for a young team that got all that attention, all the press coverage, all of those kind of things. But it's time to get to work."
Auburn and Alabama each made the Super Six last season, and Graba says that will attract more gymnasts to the state.
"Now that we're competitive, it's starting to appear to everybody it's a place you can go," Graba said. "What sold the recruits is attendance. Our sellouts are a huge deal. That has helped us to get to where we are.
"You look at Alabama, they're putting in big crowds, so what it looks like across the country is the State of Alabama is the place you want to go if you want to be a recognized gymnast, a bit of a gymnastics star. It's helped our perception."
People have noticed. NCAA champion Florida hired Auburn assistant Jenny Rowland as its head coach, and Graba says teams have called on assistant Kurt Hettinger as well.
"You lose your associate head coach and she basically gets promoted to the three-time national champ," Graba said. "We've been battling that with Kurt and Jenny the whole time we've been here. These programs are recognizing what we're doing. It's not only the fact that we're successful, we're recognized for a system that is a bit unique that other people want to tap into. I know Florida is hoping by hiring Jenny that she is going to bring some of our system down there."
Graba said their success in the NCAA Championships last season won't make an immediate impact on next season's roster.
"We're recruiting ninth grade right now," he said. "Gymnastics is just a different animal."
Still, "When you can make the championship round the final night, it sends a message across the country you're one of those programs that can win it. That's been in helpful because it shows us in a different light.
"We're finding across the country with the club coaches, all these young kids and all their parents, we're in the same conversation with some of the programs that have been the juggernauts of NCAA gymnastics for years and years and years."
The voluntary summer workouts will soon become regular practice, then another season. Graba said Auburn will find itself in a different role.
"The biggest adjustment is how they handle our success," he said. "It's harder to repeat than to do it the first time when there are no expectations attached to you. We got there, we performed extremely well, but the pressure wasn't the same.
"Even though we're losing a lot of seasoned veterans, we have six girls coming in, and they're all very talented. We're going to be a talented team again, and possibly we're going to be more talented."
Charles Goldberg is a Senior Writer at Auburn. Follow him on Twitter: Follow @AUGoldMine