By Jeff Shearer
AUBURN, Ala. - Times have changed since Jeff Graba became Auburn's gymnastics coach six years ago.
"I think we had 66 when I got here, season tickets," Graba said. "We're going to hopefully break 1,600 this year.
"The ticket sales are through the roof. To me, that's a real positive. It helps me get recruits here because the attendance rates, that's what sets us apart," he said. "These girls want to compete in front of sold-out arenas. That's one of the secrets of our success. When people want to watch you, people want to be in front of those people. We don't have to pump them up for Friday night, that's for sure."
Fans who packed Auburn Arena last season saw the Tigers defeat their in-state rival while earning their first No. 1 NCAA Regional seed.
Graba's seventh season begins Jan. 6 at 7 p.m. against Oregon State at Auburn Arena.
"We lost a lot of upperclassmen leaders, people who had been here, been in the trenches and knew what we were before. We recruited them back when we were a No. 20 program," Graba said. "But it's been a really good fall. The young people have really jumped in and embraced everything that we've asked them to do. The upperclassmen have done a great job of leading. It's been probably one of the best preseasons I've ever had. In a lot of ways, it's been a lot of fun."
The Tigers enter the season ranked No. 8, a preseason program record, by the National Association of Collegiate Gymnastics Coaches.
"Of all the rankings that we could have, this is the one I put the most emphasis on from a staff and from what I believe is an accurate portrayal of where we are because these are the other coaches looking around the country," he said. "We're a small community. Everybody knows everybody.
"What it really tells me is that, my hunch is that we're a top 10 program right now, and how we coach them is going to determine how we end up, but I take a lot of pride that the people that I have a lot of respect for feel the same way about us."
Auburn replaces a 2016 senior class that included Caitlin Atkinson, the SEC Gymnast of the Year.
"Abby Milliet is probably going to move in to the all-around. I think she's fully prepared to do that," Graba said. "Our seniors, Kullen Hlawek, MJ Rott, Lucia (Scaglione) and Kelsey Kopec, all can take at least the role that they have and move in to the anchor slots or expand their roles. The biggest issue to me is a lot of young people are going to move in to spots that were populated by veterans. But they're talented kids, and I think we're getting more talented every year. So I'm excited because to me it's an opportunity to see how we're growing."
One of those "talented kids" is freshman Gracie Day.
"I think our freshman are going to be fun to watch. Gracie Day, she's going to do the most events for us early. She might be in the all-around pretty early on. Katie Becker and Kendal Moss are going to be fun to watch, too. I would tell our fans to not just look at the new people, but we're expanding our roles for the girls who are on the team."
This week, Graba's truck is the only vehicle in the parking lot at McWhorter Center. Auburn's gymnasts are enjoying the Christmas holidays. Soon, the gym will be busy again, with a new-look lineup eager to build on the momentum created by previous seasons.
"It's an exciting time for us," Graba said.
Jeff Shearer is a Senior Writer at AuburnTigers.com. Follow him on Twitter: Follow @jeff_shearer