COLUMBIA — On the surface, last year’s third-place finish at the Big 12 Championship was standard for Missouri’s gymnastics team. The Tigers have finished third or fourth in every conference championship since the Big 12 started in 1996.
But Missouri should have won the meet. The team led heading into the final event, only to see two gymnasts fall during their balance beam routines. The Tigers were forced to count one of the falls. They dropped out of first place. And second. Back down to a familiar spot.
“We didn’t perform up to our ability, and if we had performed up to our ability, we would’ve won,” coach Rob Drass said. “That’s even worse because then you know you blew it.”
The team didn’t get over it quickly.
“It hurt. We left there crying and upset,” junior Sarah Shire said. “It hurt all the way up until the season started this year.”
No. 14 Missouri has a chance to redeem last season’s painful collapse Friday at the Big 12 Championship in Ames, Iowa. The team will compete against No. 8 Oklahoma, No. 12 Nebraska and No. 24 Iowa State. MU lost to Oklahoma and Nebraska but beat Iowa State earlier this season.
Shire said last year’s meet reinforced the perception of Missouri’s team.
“People don’t expect it from Missouri,” said Shire, who has nine all-around titles this year, the most ever for a Missouri gymnast. “And so it’s just like, ‘Oh, they were third again.’ But if you would’ve known the real story, if you would’ve gotten a play-by-play of the meet, you would’ve seen we were really there. We were not a third-place team.”
With three teams that regularly qualify for the NCAA Championships in its conference, Missouri has struggled to gain notoriety, despite improving significantly since 2001.
“I think Missouri sometimes has gotten a bad rep for not being notoriously very good,” Shire said. “And I think that kind of has hindered us when we’ve had good performances because in the back of the judge's mind it’s, ‘They haven’t beaten anybody good or they’ve never really put together a great meet.’”
Shire doesn’t think that will be a problem this year. Last Friday, MU beat then-No. 9 Oregon State, which could benefit the Tigers in the postseason.
“I think Oregon State came in here and I think we surprised them,” Drass said. “I think they looked at us in warmups and went, ‘Wow. They’re pretty darn good and we better be on our A-game.’ That kinda stuff is intimidating. I think we can intimidate teams where in the past we’ve been intimidated.”
Missouri’s upset might also affect the judges at Friday's meet.
“The judges walk in with an expectation that this team’s going to be good, so they’re ready to throw the score if you perform,” said Drass, who said judges are more inclined to give high scores to good teams.
Senior Adrianne Perry posted the highest score and won the all-around at last season’s Big 12 Championship, which was held at Oklahoma. Sophomore Alex Gold remembers the energetic OU crowd having an effect on the meet.
This year, the meet is at Iowa State, where Missouri beat the Cyclones on Jan. 9. MU lost to Nebraska on Jan. 23 and finished second behind Oklahoma in a quad meet Feb. 20.
Drass said having competed at Iowa State and beating highly-ranked Oregon State will help Missouri on Friday. But MU’s biggest advantage might come from having let the conference title slip away last year.
“We had it in our control,” Drass said. “What you’ve got to do is finish. I think the team learned a good lesson that meet, right there, that’s carrying through this year.”