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A spirit that is not afraid

Auburn gym notches program-best opener behind Lee's all-around win at Super 16

Auburn gymnast Sunisa Lee performs a beam routine during the gymnastics preview meet in Neville Arena on Dec. 16, 2022.
Auburn gymnast Sunisa Lee performs a beam routine during the gymnastics preview meet in Neville Arena on Dec. 16, 2022.

With its back to the wall and in danger of falling to last place in the final rotation of its' opening meet, sophomore Sarah Hubbard took on vault and began a rally for the Tigers.

The vault specialist tied her career high with a 9.9, starting a chain that consisted of Cassie Stevens, Sunisa Lee and fifth-year Derriane Gobourne, who each slammed the door on their first meet of the new season and year with scores of 9.9 or better. 

Despite Gobourne's career-high matching 9.95 on vault and Lee's all-around winning performance, No. 5 Auburn finished behind reigning National Champion Oklahoma and No. 4 Michigan for third place in its' Super 16 meet in Las Vegas to kick off 2023. 

However, its' final score of 197.350 not only topped No. 10 UCLA, but it also improved on every other season-opening meet in Auburn history, including a 196.050 start last year.

"It was about developing our depth and testing ourselves coming into this meet, and I was really happy with how the team performed under the pressure," said head coach Jeff Graba. "We beat our program record and were up against great competition, so I'm excited. It was a great start, and we wanted to kick off the season the right way."

While it came in third in its' session behind No. 1 Oklahoma's 197.925, Auburn finished in fourth out of the 16 teams in Las Vegas. Looking outside its own standards, Auburn competed against three top 10 teams, its star gymnast, Lee, recorded the best overall score in her session and the Tigers put themselves within .575 of the last year's National Champions.

Entering the new campaign, the Tigers didn't have much replacing to do, as they only lost bar specialist Drew Watson following last season. 

Olivia Hollingsworth filled her role on bars and started Auburn off strong with a 9.85, leading to a team score of 49.400 after the first rotation.

As a team, Auburn took a step up from its' 49.367 average on bars last season. While Hollingsworth, Gabby McLaughlin, Sophia Groth and Stevens all earned scores under 9.9, Gobourne posted a 9.9 before Lee boosted Auburn to second overall after one rotation with a 9.95.

Hollingsworth, a junior, also expanded her role from beam specialist to all-around competitor to start the season, competing in all four events and earning scores of 9.85, 9.675, 9.775 and 9.8. Groth and McLaughlin also increased their roles by being penciled in the lineup for three of Auburn's four rotations.

It only took Lee two rotations to pull out a perfect score. Along with the 10, she tallied a total score of 39.750 to earn the top all-around score of the joint session. 

"The team did really well and did a great job putting everything together," Lee said. "Personally, I feel like I did everything I could. I had a couple of hiccups and I'm still trying to figure out my routines, but I'm just taking day by day and am happy with tonight."

Despite missteps resulting in low scores for Hollingsworth and Stevens on beam, Auburn's best event in 2022 where it ranked fourth nationally, Lee performed a routine to close out the rotation with her first perfect 10 of the season. But it couldn't keep Auburn from falling to third place, where it remained for the final two rotations.

After it broke its early tie with UCLA in the second rotation, Oklahoma rolled the rest of the way to a seemingly effortless victory, but Auburn made plenty of noise on its way out of the building. 

Groth posted a 9.825, Hollingsworth a 9.8, Hubbard a 9.9, Stevens a 9.925 leading up to Lee and Gobourne to drop the mic in the final event with a 9.9 and 9.95, respectively. Together, Auburn tied the vault corps record with a 49.500 unit score. 

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"It felt great to hit that vault," Gobourne said. "I messed up my steps a little bit, but we've done so much in training that I just trusted myself and everybody in front of me. Tonight was so much fun and I'm so proud of us."

While it was a historic meet that set Auburn off to its best start in program history, Graba and the Tigers know they can't let their guard down now. Competing with the No. 1 team in the nation won't get Auburn down time. The No. 2 Florida Gators lurk next on the schedule on January 13 in Gainesville, Florida.

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