After a highly successful 2021 season which saw the British gymnastics team record a fourth-place finish at the South Eastern Conference Championships, equal the highest team score in program history in their season finale at of an NCAA Regional Final and send two individual competitors to the NCAA Championship Semifinals, the Wildcats are ready to compete again.
Ranked No. 13 in the nation in the Women’s Collegiate Gymnastics Association’s preseason poll, Kentucky’s season opener at Arizona State was initially postponed, then canceled, last week with the British team already in Arizona due to COVID-19 concerns in the Arizona State program.
As such, the Wildcats will begin their home season at 7 p.m. Friday with the annual Excite Night meet inside Rupp Arena, though COVID has again changed plans.
The Wildcats were supposed to face Georgia – an SEC rival the UK has never beaten head-to-head – on Excite Night, but it was announced on Thursday afternoon that COVID concerns in the Georgia program meant he was no longer coming to Lexington.
Instead, the UK will open their 2022 gymnastics season against Ball State.
“It’s the meet we circle on our calendar every year,” British gymnastics coach Tim Garrison, who is in his 11th season in the UK, said of Excite Night.
This season, the UK returns all 24 routines from the NCAA Regional Finals in Salt Lake City last season. These routines produced a score of 197.600 which equaled the all-time record for the British program but failed to send the United Kingdom as a team to the semi-finals of the NCAA Championships.
Garrison said vault and bars should be strong points for the UK. These two events will be the first two for the UK each encounter, alternating between jump first when the UK is at home and bars first when the UK is on the road.
The beam and floor exercises are the other two events.
“I’m looking forward to getting a good start to our competitions this year,” said Garrison. “Being able to get out of the gate fast enough to be able to have two solid rotations behind us before moving onto beam and floor.”
On balance beam, Garrison said that despite preseason preparation for the event, the mental approach to executing a good routine is different in a competitive setting.
“We can do a lot of different things to get rid of their focus and they can do it with flying colors,” Garrison said. “TWhen you get into a meet and greet situation where you’re in a big venue and the lights come on and the fans are there to cheer you on and everything is in place, it’ll be interesting to see how they react to that.
Among the experienced returnees from the UK are junior Raena Worley and second Bailey Bunn.
Worley was an All-SEC selection last season who earned three top finishes on bars, four on floor and six in all-around last season.
Worley made the semifinals of the NCAA championships as an individual on vault and said she spent the offseason fine-tuning details of her routine, such as handstands, that could have given points in the past.
“It definitely gave me a different perspective… I learned a lot about how to gain experience and really trust my gymnastics just knowing that I had trained so long to that,” Worley said of participating in the NCAA championships as an individual. “Being able to enter the competition with confidence was a big step, especially with such high-level competitors competing.”
“At the start of the season, I already feel like I’m where I finished last year,” Worley added.
Bunn was also an All-SEC selection last season as a rookie and reached the semifinals of the NCAA Championships as an individual on balance beam.
“TThis season, I kind of focused on the look of the whole team. As an individual, I don’t care what titles I hold. I’m not really worried about whether I win or anything,” Bunn said. “I’m just worried about my team. I just want to make sure our team as a whole is doing good. That’s why I came here, to be part of the team and to have the atmosphere of the team, so that the team supports me and that I can also recover them.
In addition to Bunn and Worley, seniors Josie Angeny, Anna Haigis and Arianna Patterson are returning All-SEC winners from a season ago.
This season’s UK squad also includes a new member of the coaching staff. In addition to Garrison and Rachel Garrison, Tim’s wife who is the associate head coach, Chad Wiest has joined the team as an assistant coach who oversees the UK floor exercise and vault.
“Chad brings a different level of excitement,” Worley said, noting Wiest has helped build the team’s stamina this offseason. “Having Chad’s enthusiasm on the floor, it’s so exciting to go to the floor every day and have that kind of energy. . . I think the ground crew is the strongest it’s ever been.
The first chance for the UK to compete this season means a lot.
The season opener in the UK will be the first time the Wildcats have competed inside Rupp Arena since January 2020 after Excite Night did not take place last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The last Excite Night event in January 2020 against Missouri drew almost 12,000 fans to Rupp Arena to witness a British victory.
“A lot of the first or two meetings of the season, a lot of it is discovery,” Garrison said. “It’s okay, here’s what we think we have, let’s see what we have and you won’t know until you’re put in this situation.”
“There’s a different type of drive in the team now,” Worley added. “We have unfinished business, I think that’s what the team called it, with being so close last year (to reaching the NCAA championships as a team) and so we’re income and we haven’t stopped pushing since we started.”
Bunn said most of the British squad had spent the summer training at Lexington and had their sights set on reaching the NCAA championships. — to be held in April at Dickies Arena in Fort Worth, Texas — as the team remained front and center.
“We have poise, we have strength, we have mentally strong girls. I mean, we kind of have it all,” Bunn said. “I don’t think anything can really stop us from qualifying for nationals this year. We just have to keep that mentality and keep the fire inside us.
Excite the night
Ball State No. 28 at No. 13 Kentucky
What: Season opener for British gymnastics
Or: Rupp Arena
When: 7 p.m. Friday
TV: SEC Network
This story was originally published January 13, 2022 06:00.