Losing two key performers before a gymnastics meet is one ingredient in a recipe for disaster.
When an accomplished star and marquee name falls during her strongest event, that’s the second ingredient.
For No. 8 UCLA gymnastics (1-1), the head-to-head meet with No. 2 Oklahoma (2-0) could have been defined by its setbacks. The Bruins, however, refused to allow their collective confidence to be shattered and turned in a positive performance in Norman, Oklahoma on Sunday afternoon despite losing 198.025-196.825.
“It was unfortunate that we lost our two best vaulters and, on floor, our two most powerful tumblers,” said coach Valorie Kondos Field. “I’m just really proud of how the team didn’t let it affect them. You wouldn’t have even known. We didn’t miss a beat.”
Junior JaNay Honest and freshman Madison Kocian epitomized UCLA’s double-edged day.
Before the meet, Honest was only slated to compete in uneven bars. Then, sophomore Madison Preston went down with an Achilles injury and freshman Felicia Hano tweaked a nagging elbow problem. Honest stepped up to fill the void in the vault and floor exercise.
Despite not training for vault, she pulled off a solid 9.775. Then, on floor, her clean routine was rewarded with a 9.850 from the judges.
“We had JaNay Honest come in on vault and she hadn’t even worked out,” Kondos Field said. “She could have easily gotten nervous and sent panic throughout the team.”
Another moment that might have been the catalyst for a negative performance came at the end of the Bruins’ first event – uneven bars. Kocian, a world champion and Olympic silver medalist on the bars, went through her livewire act and uncharacteristically fell.
She hopped back into her routine and finished with a perfect dismount.
“To have Madison Kocian come back after falling on bars and nail the second half of her routine is grit,” Kondos Field said. “This is the time of the season where we’re building grit.”
That grit carried through on Kocian’s next three events. She was UCLA’s high scorer on vault at 9.875 and floor with a 9.9. Her 9.925 on the balance beam was only eclipsed by senior Christine Peng-Peng Lee’s 9.95.
Another noteworthy performer was junior Sonya Meraz, whose all-around score of 39.225 was the Bruins’ best on the day.
Meraz believes that the meet proved that the team has moved on from their inconsistent and sloppy performance in the opener against Arkansas.
“I think this meet was the turning point for us,” Meraz said. “We know what we want and we’re going to work for it. It’s going to go uphill from here.”
A reason for optimism is UCLA’s depth. Honest, junior Napualani Hall and sophomore Stella Savvidou showed that injuries to key performers like Preston will not send the Bruins into a downward spiral.
“We have a lot of depth,” Lee said. “When it comes down to competition, we know that other girls have their backs and it doesn’t create a panic or anything.”
Despite the positivity, UCLA knows it can do better. Losing points in key events kept them from going toe-to-toe with Oklahoma, which posted the highest score in NCAA gymnastics so far this season.
“We, the coaches, are baffled by it. We should be a far better vault and floor team than we are right now,” Kondos Field said. “I think we are easily a mid-197 team. Once you get to mid-197, you can compete with any team in the country.”