With all eyes on her, senior Sarah Shire stared at the 40-by-40 foot floor separating her and the rest of the 15th-ranked Missouri gymnastics team from its first NCAA Championship appearance since 1981.
In a sport where every mistake shows up on the scoreboard, 4-foot-11-inch Shire needed to stow away the emotions from both herself and the Tiger-partisan audience surrounding her at the South Central Regional, hosted Saturday at the Hearnes Center. Shire had just seen her teammate commit the mistake of stepping out of bounds one turn before her.
It was up to Shire to send her hometown school packing — for Gainesville, Fla., for the championships.
And, as she has done so many times before, Shire delivered the performance of a lifetime.
Needing a solid, yet far-from-perfect 9.675 out of 10 to tie first-place Oregon State and Georgia, Shire performed her aggressive routine en route to a clinching 9.900.
Shire can thank her teammates for providing some breathing room for her.
Last year, Missouri finished ranked 13th in the country, barely missing the championships. MU posted its best score (196.000) in an NCAA Regional, but couldn’t eclipse the two top 10 schools also present at the Northeast Regional.
With the amount of talent returning, the Tigers recognized they couldn’t squander the opportunity of hosting a regional. And they didn’t.
An electric atmosphere persisted throughout the night, visibly boosting the Tigers to their second-best performance of the season. Their score of 196.500 cleared the rest of the six-school field and secured one of the 12 spots in Gainesville.
The general consensus heading in was the Tigers would need an exceptional all-around performance to top No. 5 Oregon State and the five-time defending NCAA champion, No. 8 Georgia.
But Missouri was the beneficiary of a favorable event schedule. The Tigers seized an early lead, posting their season-best score of 49.300 on the vault. Shire matched a career-best 9.950 after junior Alex Gold posted a career-best 9.900.
“To be honest with you, we were looking to finish top two,” Shire said afterwards. “But, I think after a solid two events, we knew we were in it. Why stop at second?”
With the Tigers finishing with the floor exercise, traditionally their best event, patrons were hoping for that classic, come-from-behind victory.
They didn’t get it. Instead, they saw a victorious Missouri team post a 49.000 or better in each event. All that hullabaloo about the other teams? Not necessary, as the Tigers went about their business and performed with the most consistency of any team.
Shire’s individual all-around winning score of 39.625 for the four events sealed her 11th such victory of the season, a Missouri record. That one, with the season in the balance, was her most important.
But so it has been throughout the year with Shire as the anchor in every event. Shire attracts enough attention to garner the “Crowd Favorite” award every home meet.
In a week and a half, Shire looks to become the second individual NCAA champion this season for the Tigers, following senior wrestler Max Askren’s feat March 20. It’s not outside the realm of possibility; Shire is ranked second in the nation, individually.
If Shire and the Tigers pull it off, they’ll make her hometown of Columbia a very happy place to be.