Four years ago, Missouri gymnastics was a weak program that had competed in one regional meet since 1994.
This season, behind a strong senior class entering its final home meet, the No. 18 Tigers are a threat to post a strong regional performance and could finish high enough to qualify for the national finals for the first time since 1981.
“Things have changed a lot,” senior Lindsay Davis said. “We have a lot more talent than we did my freshman year.”
Rob Drass began coaching at Missouri one year before this year’s senior class joined the team and has watched his team completely transform behind the seniors’ leadership.
“This class has led us from when we were really not a very good gymnastics team to one of the best in the country,” Drass said. “You’ve got to give them a lot of credit for that because it’s not an easy process to go through.”
Experience builds confidence
The seniors will compete in their final meet Saturday at Hearnes Center at the Mizzou Invitational, the meet formerly known as the Corvette Cup.
Although not one of the team’s biggest stars, Davis has been consistent on uneven parallel bars and the balance beam this season.
“My confidence has improved a lot since my freshman year,” Davis said. “I was pretty confident my freshman year, but now that I have the experience it’s a lot easier to go out there and have fun and perform for the crowd.”
Andrea Nervig has been Missouri’s best senior this season, averaging 9.89 on bars and 9.855 on floor exercise. She also said that it has been easier to relax while competing.
“You’re always nervous when you’re the new person,” she said. “You want to do everything right because everyone’s looking at you and you feel like everyone is judging you, and now a lot of that’s off my shoulders.”
Leadership and support
Drass said Nervig’s leadership qualities are as important as her scores.
“Andrea’s probably the most outspoken of the seniors,” Drass said. “She’s very motivational for the other athletes and I think she backs it up by what she does (in competition).”
Rachel Bridges has been one of the Tigers’ more consistent gymnasts this season, particularly on vault and floor. She has scored better than 9.80 in 17 of 20 routines during her senior season.
“I’ve perfected some things and learned some new stuff since I’ve been here,” Bridges said. “And as a team, we’ve come a long way.”
Despite not competing much, senior Lauren Owca has been as great a supporting boost for her teammates as the springboard they vault from.
“I’m kind of there if something happens, and it’s not the most glorious role, but it’s a needed one,” Owca said.
Final home meet and beyond
Missouri will face fellow South Central region competitors Centenary, Illinois State and Northern Illinois at 2 p.m. Saturday in its last home meet this season.
Although Missouri is significantly better than its competitors, Drass knows that he cannot overlook the meet’s importance.
“We can’t take this lightly because a slip or two there and we could lose to one of these teams,” Drass said.
The Tigers will be without sophomore Lauren Schwartzman, who will take the meet off as a precautionary measure to rest her right foot, which has a slight case of tendinitis. Schwartzman, who won Big 12 Conference Gymnast of the Week honors after posting two 9.95s against Oklahoma on Sunday, took a cortisone shot Monday to reduce swelling in her foot and will not practice this week.
Of all the seniors, only Nervig hopes to continue with gymnastics after she graduates, though she does not yet know how she will continue her career. Bridges said that she will use what she learned as a Missouri gymnast in the future.
“The best lesson is teamwork,” Bridges said. “We can’t get anywhere if we’re not a team. I definitely think that a team is as weak as its weakest link, and I think we’ve grown in the four years I’ve been here.”