State of the Hogs: Confidence

There were winning Razorbacks all across campus last weekend. But it was a tie that might have generated the most confidence in a big meet from the Arkansas gymnastics team.

It was a weekend to build confidence for several teams on the Arkansas campus. The No. 1 baseball team got an anticipated sweep over Evansville. Gynmastics, perhaps in a rebuilding mode, tied powerful Alabama in a season's best performance. And then there was the sweep by men's and women's track in the SEC championships to finish off the weekend Sunday afternoon.

Mark Cook, co-head coach for the Arkansas gymnastics team, was beaming in midweek about the 197.10 scored in the dead tie with No. 4 Alabama. He said it confirms what he'd been seeing in intrasquad competitions on Wednesday over the past few weeks.

"We did very, very well," Cook said. "To tie the two-time national champs should really build our confidence."

It was a nice regional qualifying score to add to the mix for the Arkansas squad, just 0-4-1 against SEC foes. While the Razorbacks are just No. 25 in the ranking averages (and No. 19 in the polls), they should move up with one more good result.

"We need another good score to replace that low score against Kentucky," Cook said. "I think this meet should give them confidence that they can do that."

Senior Kelci Lewis, with career best 9.25s on both vault and floor against Alabama, was named SEC specialist of the week.

Cook said he'd seen the impressive performance coming in the Wednesday workouts.

"We'd been doing well in the Wednesday intrasquads," he said. "But it wasn't transferring to the meets. I've been telling them, 'You guys are good.' Then we came out Friday night and hit our best vault, did well in bars, rocked the beam and did pretty well in floor.

"It wasn't perfect, but it was a really good meet. We actually had a chance to get (Alabama) at the end in floor."

Katherine Grable, closing out the floor, didn't hit her usual perfect landing.

"Kat was just over amped and she over rotated," Cook said. "It was still a really good meet."

The nice 197.10 didn't surprise Cook.

"Sometimes the score is in the hands of the panel," he said. "And it's just beyond our control. But I didn't think we'd been at our best in our earlier meets.

"The first few, I thought we were tentative. We'd had some injuries in preseason and we have a few freshmen. They are doing a lot of new routines. It's just a lot different in college and the pressure is definitely different.

"We'd been okay, but sometimes you have to go out there and take some chances. We hadn't been doing that. I think it's sometimes about chemistry. Yes, it's all individual performances, but the team perspective is so big in college."

Now it's about taking advantage of the momentum of the Alabama meet.

"Confidence is important in every sport," Cook said. "It's about getting in a zone. We are in a zone right now. It showed them that they are good. You can't achieve anything by being conservative. I'd been curious as coach to see if they could come out and take some risks and do the routines I'd seen on Wednesday. That's what they did against Alabama.

"We were competing against Alabama, yes. You would have liked to have gotten the win, but in reality we compete against every team across the country. So this was a big meet for us."

Cook's excitement was matched by Lance Harter, the veteran coach of the UA women's track team. He was doused in a victory shower after the 4x400 team won the final race of the weekend to lift the women to the team title.

"I'm fully recovered from that shower," Harter said. "That was very pleasant. I'm all for showers.

"It was a fantastic final event. We kept the crowd in their seats all the way to the end. It was a big performance from one of our big leaders, Regina George, to anchor the relay."

The women trailed LSU by one point heading into the final event, but ran away from the Tigers in the first three legs with Chrishuna Williams, Sparkle McKnight and Gwendolyn Flowers before George, the nation's top quarter miler, pulled away.

Harter said it's easy to see the other headliners like pentathlon winner Makeba Alcide and the big points in the distance races. But he said the 114.5-109.5 victory over LSU included great performances for points here and there by several under valued athletes.

"Some of these women are in the shadows of others, but we needed every point," he said. "Kirsten Hesseltine did 5-6 in high school. She went 5-10 3/4 in this meet and picked up one point. Tamara Meyers had personal bests in both the long jump and triple jump to score in both events. Jessica Kamilos was a 4.59 miler in high school and she ran 4.45 to get eighth. You just don't jump 14 seconds very often and that was crucial.

"I don't want to dismiss what Regina and some of the other headliners did, but we picked up points in a lot of places with fantastic performances."

Bucknam had lots of highlights during a huge meet for the men's team. They scored 152.5 points to coast to a big victory. Florida (117) was the only other team in triple digits.

"I was pretty happy with our performance," said Chris Bucknam, the men's coach. "We very much enjoyed the ending, with the women winning the last race for their title. We train together every day. So it makes us very proud to see them do well, too.

"We host the meet together. Our coaches and administrators work together across the board and we put it on together. So it's very fun to do well together. Overall, it was a great weekend."

There was little doubt about the men's victory. Like with the women, it's easy to pick out the headliners like final day event winners Andrew Irwin in the pole vault, Tarik Batchelor in the triple jump or the winning anchor lap in the distance medley relay of Patrick Rono.

"But we had a lot of unsung heroes, too," Bucknam said. "Cameron Efurd scored big points for us in the mile and ran a great leg on the DMR. He's a guy who has made a 180 turnaround for us. He's an athlete who sticks out for me and maybe Travis Southard in the 400. Those are guys who maybe fly under the radar for us.

"I was proud of Cameron. A lot of people don't realize it, but we can only enter 27 in the conference meet. So we have some very competitive situations just to get on the track from our team. We had guys who could score sitting in the stands in this meet.

"Cameron was in a competitive situation to get on the track and he performed. That was a hard call for our staff, but Cameron was a unanimous pick by our guys and he owned it with the way he ran.

"I'm proud of this 27-man team. I look around at other conference meets around the country and we had a great 27-man performance to get this win."

Bucknam said his team will rest and enjoy the SEC title before returning to the same home track for the NCAA meet next weekend.

"It's a great win and we don't take it lightly," he said. "But at the same time, we don't celebrate conference titles here. You look at our scoreboard, it says 40 national titles. We all know that's the goal here."

Kelci Lewis was named SEC specialist of the week.

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