COLUMBIA — The fist pumps were harder. The hugs lasted longer. The smiles were wider than at any other point this season. The emotionally charged Tigers had a reason to be extra excited. They were heading to the NCAA National Championship for the first time.
The Tigers won the NCAA South Central Regional meet, defeating five teams, including five-time defending champion Georgia, on Saturday night at Hearnes Center.
“It’s the best feeling in the world knowing everything paid off,” senior Sarah Shire said. “We knew we were good enough, but it all came down to tonight.”
Missouri posted its second-highest score of the season, 196.5, to win the Regional Championship over five other teams.
Shire captured the all-around title, as well as scoring the best in three events.
From the competition’s outset, Missouri was noticeably fired up. Assistant coach John Figueroa was screaming encouraging words and carrying, more than hugging his gymnasts as they finished their performances on vault. Seniors Shire and Danielle Guider, in their last meet at the Hearnes Center, were celebrating the end of their routines like a baseball player celebrates a game-winning home run.
And, the largely pro-Missouri crowd helped. Its loud cheers reflected the emotions on the floor.
While the gymnasts specifically told the coaching staff not to tell them the scores throughout the meet, head coach Rob Drass was adding up the opposing teams’ scores on his hand with a pen.
When the team found out it had clinched a spot in the National Championship, the gymnasts jumped up and down.
“To take first here at home in my senior year at my last meet at the Hearnes Center with this group of girls and this coaching staff is the best feeling in the world,” Shire said.
Missouri led after each of its four rotations. There were six rotations total, and the only times the Tigers weren’t atop the leader board was after each of their two byes.
After the meet, Missouri was still somewhat in disbelief.
“To be honest with you, we were looking to finish top two,” Shire said. “But, I think after a solid two events, we knew we were in it. Why stop at second?”
The two teams that followed Missouri in the standings, Oregon State and Georgia, tied. A tiebreaker was used to send Oregon State to the National Championship. The five-time defending champion Bulldogs did not advance.
The Tigers will head to the NCAA National Championship for the first time. Missouri made a national championship in 1981, the year before women's gymnastics was adopted as an NCAA sport.
According to Shire, in the preseason, sophomore Allie Heizelman grabbed fliers advertising the National Championships in Gainesville, Fla. She brought them to the team locker room, and the gymnasts hung the fliers up in their lockers. Shire said the team has used those fliers as motivation all year.
Now, the Tigers are heading to Gainesville.