Perception is a major component of college gymnastics. Some might argue it’s that way with every college sport where top programs always seem to get more breaks.
Kentucky gymnastics has been fighting the perception that it is not one of the top programs in the country — or the Southeastern Conference. However, UK is doing all it can to change that.
Kentucky will be competing in the nationals in St. Louis Friday for the first time in school history after its second-place finish in the Minnesota Region.
“Perception has a lot to do with our sport,” said Kentucky coach Tim Garrison. “Programs that are traditionally strong are looked on more favorably. The way we execute and do our skills speak for us. Some opinions (about UK gymnastics) out there are changing. We are seen in a way we have not been seen before and it’s changing for the better. We just have to keep doing what we can and let the rest take care of itself.”
Sophomore Mollie Korth, a two-time All-American, says “making program history” by getting to compete in the national semifinals Friday night in St. Louis will help change the perception of UK gymnastics. Kentucky is ranked No. 8 going into the 12-team competition (the top six teams Friday advance to the final round on Saturday).
She came to UK from Wisconsin and admits she was not quite ready for the level of competition in the SEC.
“As a freshman, my first SEC meet I was like, ‘Oh my gosh. All these teams are good.’ You get used to the environment and the other teams and you make friends with the other teams. The pressure doesn’t get as high when you know everyone, and it’s the same with nationals,” Korth said.
She admits at times she can get frustrated with the subjective judging.
“You are always going to argue with the judges and you feel that you did better. You will go back and watch the videos and see what you did or didn’t do,” Korth said. “In the middle of meets you can get frustrated with judges if one team is scoring particularly higher than the other one. There’s nothing you can do but deal with it.
“I think I learned that more in high school. Teams just get scored higher because judges like what they are wearing or where they are from. I understood that then. It happens a lot in college, too. Normally the top teams have a reputation to uphold, the judges know that. I think they do take part in scoring other teams higher sometimes because of that.”
She laughs when asked if Kentucky gets those scoring breaks. However, with what UK did in Minnesota and might do at St. Louis, the perception of UK gymnastics is changing in a major, major way.
“We are almost there. I think our perception has changed a lot the past couple of seasons,” Korth said. “We are a more reputable team and judges are starting to notice we can contend with the top dogs.”
SEC Network commentator Laura Rutledge predicted earlier this season that UK would reach the national this year for the first time. She’ll be working in St. Louis during the competition this weekend.
“What they do with the bravery they display while incorporating artistry and poise, there’s just nothing like gymnastics,” Rutledge said. “Those women are so strong and so powerful. And if you look at the academics, they are so smart.
“What they do is truly remarkable and I am proud of SEC gymnastics because it really has taken a front stage in the collegiate world and I think it will definitely continue to improve. Kentucky is definitely on the rise and is a big part of that. Nobody can take Kentucky gymnastics for granted any more.”
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For Kentucky senior cheerleader Kelsey LaCroix, there was no better experience than getting the opportunity to be part of the Winter Olympics in South Korea.
“There is no better honor than to represent the United States and cheerleading at the Olympics,” said LaCroix. “Cheerleading has been such a big part of my life. It was awesome to get to show everyone what we are made of and show the world what our sport is all about.”
LaCroix was part of three national cheer squads at Kentucky and capped her career with the 11-day trip with the UK cheer squad to the Olympics. She enjoyed getting to “experience” Korea and meet numerous Olympic athletes.
“Our performance being the closing ceremony was my favorite,” she said. “After the closing ceremony, a lot of the athletes were on the floor and we got to meet gold medalists. That’s the most involved we were with the actual athletes.”
Kentucky was picked to represent the United States in the Olympic exhibition as part of a plan to one day after cheerleading included as an Olympic sport.
“We tried to experience Korea and all it had to offer,” LaCroix said. “We performed anywhere and everywhere. Sometimes it was on little mats over concrete. Sometimes it was in the rain, snow and cold. We tried to show everyone that was there for the Olympics what cheerleading was all about but also people in the middle of shopping centers what we were about.
“Toward the end we had an exhibition festival where we kind of competed with the other cheerleading teams. We performed in front of a lot of people then. Judges were there for the other teams. But we performed at least once a day, if not twice. We were driving everywhere.”
They stayed about 1 1/2 hours from the Olympic Village where the athletes were because they performed at venues closer to the hotel. They mainly watched the Olympics on TV but did get to see warmups for speed skating in person as well as the closing ceremony.
“We went to a few festivals and some other stuff. We had a lot of the traditional Korean food. One night we were at a festival where they had a huge fire and you would write a wish on a pice of paper, throw it in the fire and then it would come true,” LaCroix said. “That was really a cool experience. We got to see some museums. It was just cool to experience so many things.
“My favorite part, though, was just seeing all the different people. I didn’t even know some of the names of the athletes but if they had a gold medal, I knew they had to be cool. But it was good to see they were just normal people like us.
“The people of South Korea were great. Because of the language, we could not talk to most of them. They tried to talk to us. I don’t know if they didn’t realize we didn’t understand or they just wanted to talk to us any way. A lot of them were just congratulating us. We had a translator from Ohio with us the whole time and she helped us communicate a lot.”
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New Kentucky receivers coach Michael Smith felt his players made progress during spring practice but knows they have a lot to do during the next few months before preseason practice starts in August.
“They have to get with each other, get with the quarterbacks and cultivate that relationship. They have to study football more,” Smith said. “I know they have a lot of stuff going on away from here (football) but at the end of the day if this is something you want to do as a professional, you have to find time to master your craft and these young men are trying to do that. I just want them to be the best players they can be and give them the tools to do that.”
Sophomore Isaiah Epps is one player Smith feels can be “special” if he continues to improved.
“He can run, he has great hips, he catches the ball well,” Smith said. “A lot of the intangibles to make you a great receiver from a physical standpoint, he has. I just want him to develop that mentality that he can’t be covered. It’s that way with them all. If we do that, then we have made big strides.”
Tavin Richardson is another potential big-play receiver, but he has to become more consistent.
“Not where I want him to be. I need more out of him. He will show up and make a play and you think, ‘Okay, this guy is ready to go.’ Then he will disappear,” Smith said. “That goes back to consistency and want-to. I need him. We all need him and he has to show up for us.”
Smith admits the plan is for sophomore Lynn Bowden to be the “go-to” receiver that every team needs to have to win.
“It’s my responsibility to get him to that point and he’s making progress. But I don’t want it to just be Lynn. I want it to be every guy I have that if a quarterback throws it to him, he will make that play for them. That’s how it is on the best teams. We need Lynn, but we can’t depend on him to make every big play for us,” Smith said.
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Quote of the Week: “I take big pride in where I am from. Being from Youngstown, a small town, you never really have the opportunity to get out here and do what I am doing now. I want to make everybody back there proud. Even people who say they are in my corner now but weren’t before, I still want to make them proud,” Kentucky sophomore receiver Lynn Bowden on his home-town roots.
Quote of the Week 2: “My initial reaction was no, but just seeing his resume and what he’s done before and the success that he’s had with certain individuals, he pretty much opened my eyes up to what I am now. I definitely have him to be thankful (for the) change in my game,” former UK player and current Oklahoma City Thunder player Patrick Patterson on John Calipari making him a perimeter player.
Quote of the Week 3: “He can severely impact a game. Kentucky lacked a home run hitter and didn’t stretch the field last year. Part of it was quarterback Stephen Johnson was injured and could not get the football out there. Part was Dorian got hurt in preseason camp. He can steady the ship at receiver. He will be back better than was, older, wiser and more mature. It’s a (NFL) contract year for him,” UK Radio Network football analyst Freddie Maggard on the return of receiver Dorian Baker for the 2018 season.
The University of Kentucky gymnastics team earns fourth place in the SEC Tournament on Saturday, March 24, 2018 in St. Louis Missouri.
Photo by Britney Howard | UK Athletics