The University of Arkansas gymnastics team has known no other skipper than Mark Cook. He was hired to build a program to rival to the top teams in Southeastern Conference and compete for championships.
Now, 18 years later, Cook and the Razorbacks may be at the point where they can legitimately compete not with just best in the SEC, but also the best in the nation. But with half of the 2018 NCAA Championships featuring teams from the SEC, it may feel like it’s the same thing.
“It's all about trying to win a national championship and winning an SEC championship,” Cook said. “I mean, if you win the SEC championship you pretty much won the national championship, you know, the way I look at it, because the SEC championships is every bit as difficult as the NCAAs, with the strength of the teams within the conference. But again, it's just trying to be the best we can be in the conference, and best in the country, and trying to build on that and just be consistent.”
The reason for the high expectations is mostly due to what Arkansas was able to do during the 2018 season. The Razorbacks made it to the program’s 15th consecutive NCAA Regional appearance and its first NCAA Championship meet since 2013.
“It was really exciting to get back to nationals,” Cook said. “We had a little time there in between our last qualifications — it was like four years — and so it was nice getting out team back to qualified again and doing pretty well at the same time.”
The Razorbacks ended up finishing sixth in their semifinal session with a score of 196.425. Despite finishing in the top 10, they missed out on making it to the Super Six. But it was a gigantic improvement from finishing 27th in the rankings in 2017.
The Razorbacks roll into this season with five new freshmen, but also most of the gymnasts back from last year’s postseason run. That includes Hailey Garner.
As a sophomore, Garner earned All-American status on the beam. Now the Memphis, TN, native will have more on her plate as a junior.
“I expect her to continue to do well on (the beam),” Cook said. “And bars, she's really phenomenal on bars as well. She's going increase her difficulty with a more consistent dismount on bars this year, and she's training floor. So that’s three events that are her forte. Vault is an event that she has not excelled on, so we're not going to train on that event, But the other three events, we're going try to really focus on.”
There are also has high expectations for sophomore Sara Shaffer, who was the SEC Freshman of The Year last season. But Cook is looking for more.
“More consistency. We've tried increase the difficulty on uneven parallel bars, you've got a double lay, she has an Arabian double front on the floor, so she's added difficulty on two events,” Cook said. “And so, just to see her continue to progress with difficulty and execution and more maturity. Because you can really tell when the kids are in their junior and senior years, they tend to really settle down a little bit more, sometimes, than their freshman, sophomore years.”
Because Schaffer battled a back injury last year, Cook said don’t be surprised if they have to rest her at points during the schedule to have her ready for the postseason.
Despite that, Shaffer is one of several Razorbacks Cook is looking at to take over the all-around duties vacated by the graduation of Amanda Wellick. She joins Kennedy Hambrick and Michaela Burton as the other contenders.
“We have a number of all-arounders training. Probably the one in the lead right now would be Michaela Burton. She's a junior, from Legacy Elite Gymnastics. That was her club program, and she's really developed well,” Cook said. “She didn't compete in vault for us last year, and she didn't compete on bars, but she's back on those two events, so she's got training, and expected to be probably our lead all-arounder this year.”
Arkansas tips-off their season off Jan. 5 when they host Oklahoma, who finished as the runner-up at the NCAA tournament. The Sooners are one of four top-10 teams that will pay Barnhill Arena a visit. The rest are to SEC teams.
Cook knows before he can take that next step of contending for a national title, his Razorbacks first have to break through the ceiling in their own conference.
“Within the conference, we're recruiting a lot of the same kids, so it's a recruiting battle,” Cook said. “You have to have the kids with the abilities, you know? You got to peak them at the right time. But the fact is, we compete against every team in the SEC every year, we have that kind of schedule, so you're really going against some of the top teams in the country, every year, almost every meet. And the crowds are large. And so the SEC championship has been on a podium for quite some time, and so with that intensity of competition, I think it prepares us for both seasons, and just makes us stronger as a conference, against each other, and with each other. I've always embraced a hard schedule because when you get into postseason you've seen all those teams so it doesn't really affect you as much. I think it just strengthens you mentally.”