Kullen Hlawek (above) is shown in the beam competition in Auburn's dual meet victory over Alabama.
Auburn, Ala.--Borrowing a line and title from a 1960s hit song by The Hombres, Auburn gymnastics coach Jeff Graba says it is time for the Tigers to “let it all hang out” as they compete in the NCAA Championships on Friday at Fort Worth, Tex.
Auburn is one of 12 teams that qualified for the nationals. The field will be cut in half at Friday’s competition with a national champion crowned on Saturday night during the Super Six round of competition.
“I think a lot of people wrote us off losing a pretty influential senior class last year and losing five athletes and quite a few routines off the team,” Graba says. “We finished sixth the season before and our preseason ranking was 10th (this season), and I know that was because people thought it was going to be a struggle for us to replace.
“After week five, when we lost a majority of our freshmen (to injuries) in one night, I think almost everybody wrote us off,” Graba adds. “Our staff had to go back to the drawing board and figure out how we are going to get this thing figured out.”
Auburn figured it out well enough to earn its first-ever No. 1 seeding for an NCAA Regional. Traveling to the University of Michigan, the Tigers and Stanford qualified for the nationals at that regional.
“This team is just a bunch of fighters and stepped right up,” Graba says. “It is really good for our future because they all have quite a bit of experience at this point.”
The Tigers are led by All-American senior Caitlin Atkinson, the SEC Gymnast of the Year, but there have been strong scores from a variety of competitors throughout the season such as seniors Lexus Demers and Kait Kluz along with juniors M.J. Rott and Kullen Hlawek, sophomores Abby Milliet and Sarah Garcia and freshmen Samantha Cerio and Taylor Krippner.
Hlawek says the team’s plan is to enjoy the moment and be aggressive when they take the floor on Friday night at the Fort Worth Convention Center. “I know some of the freshmen are a little bit nervous about this knowing it is a really big meet and we can make Super Six and everything, but the thing we have been telling them is this is the best meet of the year, the top of the top. We have made it to where we want to be so at this point go all out. We have nothing to lose--have as much fun as possible like we have been trying to do all year.”
Hlawek says the Tigers have performed well, but can do even better. “I?think we have come really close to reaching our potential, but we haven’t quite gotten there. There have still been hiccups here and there.”
Graba agrees with Hlawek that it is important for the Tigers to take a confident, aggressive attitude into the competition and says, “I think the freshmen are still struggling with the fact that this is the most fun meet of the year. National championships, everybody wants to be here. We are one of the 12 teams that make it.
“There is no hiding it, we are going to have to be extremely good,” Graba adds. “All of these teams are going to have their best meets of the year in order to move on to Super Six. It is about letting it all hang out, have fun and enjoy the process.”