Sparks Should Fly

FAYETTEVILLE -- Arkansas' Gym'Backs put their 3-0 record and No. 12 ranking on the line against No. 6 Georgia in a Southeastern Conference meet tonight in Barnhill Arena.

The sights and sounds should be spectacular.

Georgia, last year's national runner-up, has reloaded with a top-notch freshman class including World Championship medalists Katie Heenan and Sam Sheehan.

Both Nikki Childs and Megan Dowlen of the Gym Dogs were U.S. National Team members, and Audrey Bowers was a two-time Level 10 national beam champion.

Arkansas counters with three talented freshmen of its own -- Samantha "Sammie" Cortez, Emily Peacock and Mallory Machnik -- plus five juniors including co-captains Hannah McLeod and Dana McQuillin.

McLeod is termed "doubtful" for tonight's meet because of a sprained ankle, but should return for next week's meet at LSU.

"We're excited to be competing in our first home meet of the season," said UA co-coach Rene Cook. "It should be a great competition with an extremely strong Georgia team. We'll see how much we've grown."

When Georgia visited Barnhill Arena two seasons ago, Arkansas was just beginning its gymnastics program. Still, the Gym'Backs placed fourth nationally in home attendance that first year and repeated that position last year.

"The whole experience tonight will be exciting," Cook said. "We have a good plan, and we'll focus on what we can make better."

Georgia has been in the news recently because of a postseason trip last year for former gymnasts that cost the Gym Dogs a gymnastics scholarship and a one month recruiting restriction in August of this year.

But Arkansas' coaches declined to be drawn into that controversy.

"They run their program and we run ours," Cook said. "Our whole focus is on how we approach our own training. If we hit all our routines and don't count a fall, we're going to get good scores and know that we're improving."

Cortez, who has never performed for more than 2,100 fans, should see more than double that number in Barnhill Arena tonight.

"It will be exciting to feel the energy of the crowd," Cortez said. "You try to focus on your routines, your skills and helping the team, but the crowd definitely helps in your performance."

The Gym Dogs were ranked fourth when they met Arkansas two years ago, and were ranked second last season when the schools competed in Athens.

"They have a lot of freshmen now, but you'll see how good they are," Cook said.

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