When Oklahoma and Georgia faced off Friday night, the two squads had one thing in common. Both rosters were filled with freshmen.
The top-ranked Sooners came into the meet with six freshmen, while the fifth-ranked Gymdogs featured nine rookies on their rosters.
The biggest difference on the night was that Georgia had to use a lineup filled with newcomers while Oklahoma still had veterans they could rely on to carry them through.
The Sooners dominated the match 197.825-195.300 at Lloyd Noble Center as they handed the Bulldogs their first defeat of the season.
“I'm sure [youth] has a little bit to do, but honestly, you can't put the excuses on that,” Gymdog’s coach Courtney Kupets Carter said. “At the end of the year, you've got to be ready to go, you've got to hit your events, and if someone falls, you've got to be able to pick it up. So, yes, they're young. They've already had one meet under their belt. This was their first away meet. But every away meet's going to be new.”
While Carter doesn’t want to use lack of experience as a reason for her team's showing at Oklahoma, it is a factor.
Georgia returned five gymnasts with experience from last season: Sydney Snead, Rachel Dickson, Sabrina Vega, Marissa Oakley, and Emily Schild. That includes four All-American gymnasts from a squad that finished seventh in the nation.
Snead is the only senior on the team.
“I think that this was a great learning point,” Snead said. “I think we'll be able to take away a lot of things. And like I said, it was the first away meet, so we'll definitely build off of it.”
The freshman class is made up of talented gymnasts from across the country: Alexa Al-Hameed, Sterlyn Austin, Rachel Baumann, Sami Davis, Rachael Lukacs, Mikayla Magee, Alyssa Perez-Lugones, Megan Roberts, and Abby Ward.
“Everyone always is saying, 'Oh, you have nine freshmen, how is it going to work?'” Vega said. “You know what? We take it, and we work from it ... We get everyone ready the same: freshmen, sophomore, junior, senior; it doesn't matter what grade you are. We all have done gymnastics for so long ... so we just go out there with a fire and our passion, and we just go after it.”
When you have such a young squad, the team can go through ups and downs during the course of a season. In the Gymdogs first meet against Ohio State, the freshmen had stellar performances. Six of the nine competed and helped Georgia post a score of 196.600 in front of the home crowd at Stegeman Coliseum.
"The impact of our freshmen is everywhere," Kupets Carter said. "When we have a team meeting, we have two rows, and all the freshmen are in the first row. They are really important to us. They are very important because we need them to continue fighting. Even though we only have one or two on each event, we need to keep them building."
However, when the freshmen experienced their first road meet, they didn’t have the same success and they posted lower scores. But Vega said the missteps are somewhat expected.
“Honestly? Freshmen, you have those butterflies,” Vega said. “You don't really know what to expect. This is our first away meet, so it's a learning experience. Overall, we did great. We have to fix some stuff when we get back to the gym, but another stepping stone. It's just the beginning of the season.”
Carter said despite the loss to the Sooners, the trip will defiantly be a learning experience for them.
“The biggest thing is to, one, just take a step back, because there is some disappointment,” Carter said. “Everyone, obviously, doesn't wish this when they go in there. They don't want to fall, they don't want to make mistakes. So, we have to take a step, see what we're doing as coaches, what they're doing skill-wise; if there are any changes we need to make or lineup positions, and just really reevaluate. It's a good time for us to just make sure we're doing everything we can for them.”
Carter also said her freshmen had their moments where it was easy to tell the type of potential the Gymdogs will be working with in the coming months and years.
“There were some high points, and some improvements in some areas. Vault was amazing,” Carter said. “I mean, if we look at vault just in general, they came back from bars and bounced back with a 49.3. Really, every single one of those athletes improved from last week on that event. But we can't just do it on one event; gymnastics has four, so we're going to make sure we can do it on all four.”