The Maneater

Missouri gymnastics doesn’t live up to potential in 2018 campaign

The 2018 senior class of Tigers set high expectations for the future as freshmen, but they left the program in the same state as when they joined.

Junior Mary Burke contorts along the balance beam Friday against Southern Utah at the Hearnes Center. Burke is the top gymnast in the Big 12 and is ranked 10th nationally.

In 2015, Missouri gymnastics (6-7) qualified for the NCAA Norman Regional after placing seventh at the Southeastern Conference championship that year. The Tigers’ season ended in Norman, Oklahoma, as they placed fourth in the Regional. It wasn’t a bad result, considering that 44 percent of the routines in those two meets were performed by freshmen, and it certainly looked promising for the future.

In 2016, No. 20 Missouri (6-9) placed eighth at the SEC championships and qualified for the NCAA Minneapolis Regional, where the team’s season once again came to a close following a third-place finish. This time, 94 percent of the routines were performed by underclassmen.

Last year, the No. 15 Tigers (10-7) finished seventh at the SEC championships and then third at the NCAA Gainesville Regional as the team failed to qualify for the semifinals for the third consecutive year. The two seniors on the team only combined for one total routine in these two meets, and the rest of the team was returning for the 2018 season.

This brings us to Saturday’s NCAA Tuscaloosa Regional, where the freshmen who showed so much potential back in 2015 were now leading the No. 20 Missouri Tigers (9-7) as seniors. The team had placed seventh in the SEC championships two weeks beforehand and was the fourth seed in a strong regional group that included ranked opponents No. 6 Alabama, No. 12 Georgia, No. 13 Michigan and No. 19 Illinois, as well as Central Michigan.

Missouri placed fifth in the meet, nearly half a point behind second place and advancement to the semifinals.

When looked at individually, none of these seasons can be considered a failure. The SEC is arguably the strongest conference in women’s gymnastics, and there is no shame in the Tigers finishing behind six or seven ranked teams, especially when ranked themselves. Additionally, only 12 programs qualify for the NCAA semifinals, and it would be foolish for fans of any team to expect their team to make it every year. It’s simply too difficult.

However, when the four seniors of this 2018 team graduate next month, they will leave the gymnastics program in the same state as when they joined it, leaving many wondering what happened to the program’s supposed shining future.

When seniors Tia Allbritten, Kennedi Harris, Shauna Miller and Becca Schugel announced themselves to the Mizzou faithful three years ago, a statement was made with the success that they had: The talented freshmen would carry this Tiger team to new heights as they gained experience and improved.

The excitement surrounding the team increased with every youngster who broke through and thrilled the fans in the years since. In 2016, Morgan Porter became the first Tiger to win SEC Freshman of the Year. Juniors Madeleine Huber and Allison Bower have been mainstays in the lineup for their events (vault, bars and floor for Huber; beam and floor for Bower) for the past three seasons. Sophomore Aspen Tucker posted a 39.450 and 39.400 in consecutive weeks in the all-around competition as a freshman in 2017.

The expectation was that these gymnasts would improve as they got older and gained experience, and Missouri would reach a new level of success with them.

But, curiously, Missouri gymnastics has not progressed to the extent it was expected to. In fact, many of these young stars’ performances have actually regressed in the years since.

The freshmen who performed almost half of the Tigers’ postseason routines in 2015 only performed 23 percent as seniors in 2018. They have not improved with age and have been replaced in the lineup by younger gymnasts. Porter tore her Achilles in 2017 and has yet to fully regain the form she displayed as a freshman. Bower recorded only one score of at least 9.900 this season, and Tucker has not replicated her all-around scores of last season, tallying scores under 39.000 in each of the postseason meets in 2018.

There has been enough talent to qualify for at least one NCAA semifinal. And yet, time and time again, the Tigers have not been able to put all of the pieces together and become the dominant force they are capable of being.

This does not imply the past few years have been a complete failure for Missouri gymnastics. On the contrary, the Tigers have consistently produced solid, above-average results in recent seasons, evidenced by their constant presence in the NCAA top-25 rankings. Most programs across the country would consider themselves lucky to reach the levels this Missouri team has reached, and the Tigers can pride themselves on this achievement.

But time is running out for the Tigers to make the next step and become one of the country’s elite. Consistent above-average seasons do not mask the fact that Missouri could have been better. The Tigers have been on the cusp of greatness for years, yet have stagnated when it mattered most.

Allbritten, Harris, Miller and Schugel have each had excellent careers for Missouri, but as they leave, the spotlight is shined on what could have been for this gymnastics team.

Edited by Joe Noser | jnoser@themaneater.com

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