Darren Hellwege, Sports Commentator
The Missouri Tigers gymnastics team took an early lead following a brilliant vault by freshman Rachel Updike and held on for a razor-thin victory over Iowa State in the team’s home opener at the Hearnes Center. The Tigers finished with a score of 192.675, while the Cyclones scored 192.600.
ISU’s Michelle Browning had the top all-around score with 39.025. Missouri’s Mary Burke placed second with 38.675. Burke was second to Updike in the vault and also had an excellent score in her floor exercise (9.80) and on the bars (9.80). She might well have won the overall but a stumble gave her a score of 9.30 on an otherwise solid routine on the beam.
Missouri coach Rob Drass, while pleased with the victory, saw plenty of room for improvement in his young team. “It was a semi-rough meet. First-meet jitters kind of stuff.”
He said falls like Burke’s on the beam cost the team half a point each on the bars, beam and vault and a point on the floor.
“I think you try as much as you can to make an inter-squad as much as a meet as you can, but when they know it doesn’t count, they relax. When it counts, you make mistakes or over-think, and I think we over-thought some stuff and didn’t trust our preparation. You should see our score bump up two points.”
Part of the jitters may be the youth of the Tiger team. While there are solid seniors in Burke and Allie Heizelman, the team will also rely on a bunch of freshmen as Katelyn Trevino, Briana Conkle and Updike were all major players for the Tigers on Sunday.
Rachel Updike. Photo courtesy MU Athletics
But if there were nerves before her first meet as a collegian, Updike didn’t show it, and she was the most consistent scorer for Mizzou. In addition to her tremendous vault, she had a 9.85 on the beam and a 9.875 on the floor. “I was just really excited. The girls talked about how different it was from club gym, and it was different, but it was a lot of fun,” Updike said.
And the fun should continue for Missouri fans, who get to watch the Kansas native, a former member of the US Junior National Team, for four years.
“That’s the kind of kid that you can turn into the best gymnast in the country with the right kind of coaching,” Drass said. “Right now, we just want to get her consistent, competing week in and week out. She’ll be good…and it’s exciting.”
Some of the other highlights of the meet for the Tigers came from Tori Howard, who had a 9.8 on her floor exercise, a beautiful routine on the bars that scored a 9.85 for Heizelman, and solid 9.75 beam scores from Taylor Medrea and Cathryn Aliceaacosta.
But it was the remarkable vault by Updike that set the pace for the entire day. Her height was tremendous, and while a perfect landing, known as “sticking” a landing, can sometimes be heard throughout the building Updike’s was cat-soft. And it impressed her senior teammate, Burke.
“Rachel did a great job in her first meet, and it really does set the pace for the rest of us. It gets everyone excited, and the energy just comes up and we’re excited to go to the next events.”
Asked about the vault, Updike said, “Right when I hit the horse I knew it was good, and I just look for the ground, and I stuck it.” Then, she gave a shrug, as if anyone could have done it. Or, perhaps as if she could do better. But, there may be some question to that, as Drass said he couldn’t find a thing wrong with the vault and that it may have earned a perfect 10. One imagines that in the right situation (and with the right judges) we’ll see Updike score a few before her years in the black and gold are finished.
And from this thrilling freshman to the strong senior class the entire Tiger team could be very good this season. If they can remove the few obvious mistakes from their routines, scores around 195 should be attainable every time out, and the Tigers 11th consecutive NCAA Regional appearance looks like a reasonable goal.
• The start of a new season, the upcoming jump to the SEC (which has some outstanding gymnastics programs), a sharp new freshman class—there are a lot of reasons to be excited about Mizzou gymnastics. But the biggest reason wasn’t even at the Hearnes Center Saturday. It is, in fact, a few hundred yards away, just to the south of the football stadium. A new building has been constructed for Mizzou gymnastics and the Golden Girls. Drass said it will be a huge advantage when it comes to recruiting and the athletes all expressed excitement about the facility as well.
• The importance of the new home of Tiger gymnastics may be on Sunday’s scorecard. One of the building’s advantages is a “soft-landing” practice area, which has enabled Heizelman to practice while battling back from injury. Drass said that without it she almost certainly wouldn’t have been able to compete Sunday. With it? Heizelman won the event.
• There were familiar faces at Hearnes Sunday even with the start of a new season. Former Tiger Danielle Guider is now a volunteer assistant coach at Iowa State, and former Mizzou star Sarah Shire now is Director of Operations for MU. There was a new face on the Tigers side as well, as Drass welcomes assistant Jennifer Green to his staff. Green will work with the choreography and help coach beam, and already has a connection with the team. She was Updike’s coach at Kansas Gymnastics and Cheer, Inc., where she also coached several former Tigers.
• The Tigers have a long road trip planned next weekend, as they’ll take on Southern Utah in Cedar City, Utah. The Thunderbirds qualified for NCAA Regional competition last year, finishing sixth in Corvallis, Ore., after one of their top competitors was injured in warm-ups. This will be their season opener.
• The Tigers next will return home to take on Denver on Friday, Jan. 20 at Hearnes. It will be the annual “Pink Out” event, with fans encouraged to wear pink to the event. Money raised with be used for breast cancer awareness and research.
• And then…think Mizzou can’t ever work things out with Kansas? That teams never see one another when they leave a conference? Perhaps not. On Jan. 28 the Tigers travel to take on a familiar old rival, the Nebraska Cornhuskers. A former Big 12 member, the Huskers are now in the Big Ten.