No. 7 Auburn is set to take on the NCAA Regionals in the 1 p.m. CST afternoon session on Thursday, March 31, in Neville Arena.
In the first regional round with No. 2 seed Auburn will be No. 3 seed Kentucky, Georgia and Southern Utah.
In the first round on Wednesday, March 30, Iowa State defeated Western Michigan to join No. 1 seed Florida, No. 4 seed Denver and Ohio State in the second session of the second round on Thursday, March 31.
The last time Auburn saw action was in the SEC Championships on Saturday, March 19.
In the championship meet, the Tigers placed third behind Alabama and Florida. Florida is traveling to Auburn as the No. 1 seed to compete in the night session on Thursday, March 31.
“We have a young team that hasn’t been in the postseason,” said head coach Jeff Graba. “A couple of athletes have been through it. It’s a different game, but it’s still just gymnastics. It’s still about doing your thing, trying to zone out all the stuff that’s going on around you. Competing at the SECs prepared us for this. We’ve just got to keep our head down, put one foot in front of the other, and we’ll be alright.”
The Tigers scored a 197.225 in Birmingham after having to count a fall in the first rotation, but they are more than capable of putting up a bigger number, which they will need to do this postseason.
“Obviously, that’s never the way you want to start a meet, but the fact that we didn’t succumb to it, this team battles to the end, like we can overcome anything," said Cassie Stevens. "It gave me a lot of confidence in the team moving forward just knowing that we are able to overcome it. We’ve proven it to ourselves.”
The troubles for Auburn came on the beam in the first rotation.
Even after the beam rotation score of 48.900, Auburn came bounding back and ended the night with a program-best bars rotation score of 49.675. Freshman Sunisa Lee ended the bars rotation with the second-ever recorded 10.0 bars score in a SEC championship meet, earning her the SEC title in the event.
Several Auburn gymnasts performed crucial routines during the meet.
Stevens put in solid routines and kept a steady performance throughout the entire meet. Senior Drew Watson performed well on both floor and vault, while Lee recovered from her fall on beam to put in good scores for the rest of the meet. Senior Derrian Gobourne put up huge routines for the Tigers, as did freshman Sophia Groth and junior Aria Brush.
Since the championship meet, several Tigers have been awarded conference honors.
Lee, Gobourne, Brusch and Groth were named to the All-SEC team. Lee was named SEC Freshman of the Year and placed on the All-Freshman team, while Gobourne was named SEC Co-Specialist of the Year. Gobourne also won the same title in the 2021 season.
Lee, Groth and Gobourne kept raking in accolades, with all three earning regular season WCGA All-American honors. Lee earned first team honors in the all-around, bars and beam while earning second team on floor. Gobourne earned first team honors for the floor and Groth earned first team honors for the beam.
Last season, Auburn did not compete in the postseason due to COVID-19 cases in the program. This year, that fact is a big motivator for this balanced mix of talented underclassmen and the leadership of the upperclassmen who missed out.
“Obviously last year was disappointing,” Stevens said. “Just to kinda have it taken out of your hands. You don’t really get to end it on your terms, so I think we are all really excited. I don’t think the freshmen really understand the feeling, but I know a lot of us upperclassmen are excited for this new experience and to just take advantage of this opportunity. We are just grateful that we have it this year.”
Auburn will kick off the first session of the second round on the floor, where it is ranked sixth nationally. The Tigers will then move to vault, where they are tied for fifth nationally. After vault comes bars, where the Tigers are ranked fifth nationally. Auburn will end the meet on beam, where it has its highest national ranking at fourth.
This is the same rotation that the Tigers were given in the Elevate the Stage meet in Huntsville, where they scored a 197.750.
This deep into the postseason, several Auburn gymnasts are already cemented into the starting lineups. On the floor, both Lee and Gobourne rank nationally in the top ten. Stevens, Groth, Watson and Brusch are also likely contenders to be in the floor lineup along with freshman Sara Hubbard and junior Adeline Sabados.
On the vault, Watson and Lee have been steady performers for the Tigers. Gobourne and Stevens have both recorded 9.9s or better this season. Groth and Hubbard have both appeared in the vault lineup, but so have sophomore Tara Walsh and fifth year senior Jada Glenn.
On bars, Auburn will be trying to replicate the 49.675 that it scored in the SEC Championship. Gobourne and Lee will continue to anchor the lineup, with Brusch performing better and better each meet. Sabados has held the leadoff spot for the majority of the season, and other rotation contenders include Groth, Stevens, sophomore Gabby McLaughlin and Watson.
Ending the meet on arguably their best event, the Tigers are going to put out the best they can offer. Lee, who has scored two perfect tens on this event, will most likely anchor the rotation, even after she had a fall at the conference championships. Other likely faces will be McLaughlin, Groth, Brusch, Stevens, sophomore Olivia Hollingsworth, junior Piper Smith and junior Morgan Leigh Oldham.
Auburn will be looking to continue from the strong ending of the conference championship meet. The key will be to have a strong start to earn a score good enough to take the Tigers to the regional final meet on Saturday, April 2, at 5 p.m. CST. Auburn has to place in the top two in both its opening round and the regional finals to move on to the NCAA Championships in Fort Worth, Texas.
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Emily Porch is a senior from Sylacauga, Alabama. She joined The Plainsman in fall 2021.