The Georgia GymDogs were on the beam Saturday night.
But not for long.
As a result, what began as a thrilling meet against No. 1-ranked Florida quickly dissolved into a numbing 197.3-196.175 loss.
For you football fans, that’s the rough equivalent of three touchdowns. And a field goal.
The GymDogs’ beam miscues turned a raucous, sold-out Stegeman Coliseum into a morgue. Much of the crowd had turned away well before the final rotation ended.
Even the staunchest GymDogs fans felt dismayed and disheartened. Gene has been a GymDogs season ticket holder since the Gymnastics Endowment Fund began in the mid-90s. He and his wife are members of the Ten-0 Booster Club, attend practice sessions, and remain tuned in to the inner workings of Georgia Gymnastics.
Saturday, Gene did something he’s never done before. He left early. He stood up during the final rotation, put on his coat, strode over, and said, “It’s tough to watch, isn’t it?”
Then, shaking his head in disbelief, he muttered, “I can’t believe they’ve fallen so far so fast.”
Things are never quite as terrible as they seem in the midst of a crushing loss. But when a program treated its fans to 10 national championships — including five in a row from 2005-2009 — the accepted standard’s been raised pretty high.
No, these GymDogs aren’t Suzanne Yoculan’s juggernaut. But they might not be too far away.
They came out against Florida and nailed season-high team scores on vault and uneven bars. Halfway through the meet, they had posted a score of 99.0, good for a lead of 0.15 points.
For perspective, Florida posted the nation’s highest score just last week, a 198.1 against Alabama.
So the GymDogs knew they had no margin for error against the Gators. They also knew they hadn’t beaten Florida since the NCAA Super Six finals in 2009, while winning their last national championship.
Yet they came out like world-beaters.
Then they moved to the balance beam. Lindsey Cheek led off with an excellent 9.9. Sarah Persinger followed with a wobbly 9.725, the first score of the night under 9.8. Not a score that will beat Florida, but not a fatal score, either.
Then, the deluge. Senior Noel Couch fell, scoring a 9.25. Freshman Brittany Rogers came through with another 9.9, but senior Shayla Worley (9.35) and junior Kaylan Earls (9.25) both fell. That meant the GymDogs had to count two of the three falls.
Game, set, match.
Even more maddening, the GymDogs faced the same beam demon two weeks ago against two-time defending national champion Alabama.
Holding a 98.75-98.325 lead after two rotations, the GymDogs quieted the Coliseum crowd as Cheek fell leading off on beam.
But the next five GymDogs all hit their routines. It culminated with Earls’ sterling 9.95 that caused the Coliseum to erupt as if it were 2009. The GymDogs won, 197.5-196.95. On a night when Alabama produced its best score of the season, the GymDogs produced the second best score in the nation. And the rollicking Coliseum made it feel like the GymDogs were back.
What caused the GymDogs to fall Saturday when two weeks ago they rose to the occasion?
“We got off to a great start today, but we need to be able to keep that momentum going until the end of the meet,” new coach Danna Durante told georgiadogs.com. “We pulled them into the hall after the meet and said we’re not going to accept the fact that we are not a good beam team. We need to be more confident, and we need to help them grow into that.”
What’s missing is the mental toughness that was the hallmark of Yoculan’s teams. That mental toughness seemed to evaporate during Jay Clark’s three-year reign, when the GymDogs fell below their potential at the end of each season.
That’s what Florida coach Rhonda Faehn seemed to be saying after the meet.
“This was the absolute best environment to test our team,” she told gatorzone.com. “To see how they would perform with a sold-out arena.
“What I loved is that they did not buckle after the opening two events, where we felt we did not perform as we are capable of. They came out and fought even harder on floor.”
Come crunch time, the Gators turned it up a notch.
The GymDogs? They were tough to watch.
Denton Ashway is a contributing columnist for The Times. His column appears each Thursday.
Mind games keep GymDogs off the beam