Missouri gymnastics hopes to leap to championships

MU hopes to make its first NCAA championship appearance in 29 years.

After a season of proverbial highs and lows, the biggest challenge for the No. 15 Missouri gymnastics team (12-5) is two days away. It is time to see if the Tigers, as a team, are finally ready to make the leap to the NCAA National Championships, a feat that has stubbornly eluded Missouri under coach Rob Drass.

On multiple occasions while helmed by Drass, last season included, the Tigers were just shavings away from becoming one of the 12 squads invited to the national championship. The Tigers boasted their highest NCAA Regional team score in the school's history with a score of 196.000 and a No. 13 final national ranking.

But this could be the year that breaks the 29-year-old curse that stifled every Missouri effort since 1981 to make a return trip to the national championship and the program's second overall NCAA Championship berth.

One advantage the Tigers have this time around, which could prove decisive, is they are playing host for their own regional meet. The Hearnes Center was the site of the Tigers' three highest team scores of the season, with the best topping out at 196.875.

The Tigers also jump out to strong starts when at home. In every home meet this year, Missouri always had a lead after the judges tallied the first rotation scores. On the season, Missouri is 5-1 at the Hearnes Center with a loss to Big 12 enemy Oklahoma as its only blemish.

Individually, the Tigers also tend to rewrite the record books when at home, as evidenced by senior Sarah Shire, who broke Missouri's all-around record against Illinois State with a 39.725 on Feb. 26, and sophomore Mary Burke, who set the school's new highest floor exercise mark of 9.975, which Shire matched minutes afterward on the very same night.

Drass possesses arguably the best gymnast in the country within his roster's arsenal with Shire, who finished the season ranked as the second-highest gymnast nationally in the all-around.

The Big 12 gymnast of the year is also rated within the top 15 in every event. Shire holds the most Big 12 Gymnast of the Week awards in conference history in her already extensive resume this season. A big night from her would definitely increase Missouri's chances.

What might be the most pivotal factor for the Tigers advancing Saturday is whether they will be consistent in every performance. On more than one occasion this season, the Tigers misfired a few routines, especially on uneven bars, and those mistakes cost them meets.

A lot of pressure falls to frequent all-arounders senior Danielle Guider and freshman Lauren Swankoski to perform well to supplement the firepower of Burke and Shire. If the Tigers execute every event properly, going to the championships is well within their grasp.

The opponents that will compete with Missouri for a ticket to Gainesville, Fla., include No. 36 North Carolina (19-6), No. 30 Iowa (11-13), No. 25 Minnesota (7-14-1), No. 8 Oregon State (17-5) and No. 5 Georgia (10-7), with the Beavers and Bulldogs being the most threatening.

Oregon State finished third in the Pac 10 Championship meet, failing to overcome Stanford and UCLA. Its most dangerous weapon is senior Mandi Rodriguez, the 15th best gymnast nationally in the all-around.

Georgia is in search of its 11th NCAA Regional title in 12 years. The Bulldogs do not have a gymnast in the top 25 of the all-around, but they have strong balance in all four events, with sophomore Kat Ding tied for 18th on vault and tied for 4th on bars, senior Courtney McCool tied for 21st on bars, 13th on balance beam and 3rd on floor and senior Grace Taylor tied for 4th on beam.

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