Challenge awaits Arkansas gymnasts

Arkansas gymnast Lauren Williams (left) speaks with coach Jordyn Wieber during a meet against Auburn on Friday, Jan. 26, 2024, in Fayetteville. (Andy Shupe/NWA Democrat-Gazette)
Arkansas gymnast Lauren Williams (left) speaks with coach Jordyn Wieber during a meet against Auburn on Friday, Jan. 26, 2024, in Fayetteville. (Andy Shupe/NWA Democrat-Gazette)

FAYETTEVILLE -- For the fourth time in three weeks, the University of Arkansas gymnastics team will take on a top-six opponent, this time at the Metroplex Challenge in Fort Worth.

The No. 16 Razorbacks will face No. 1 Oklahoma, No. 2 California and Washington tonight at 7 at the Fort Worth Convention Center in what will be the team's first two-meet weekend of the season. Arkansas will stay in the area to compete against No. 9 Alabama, No. 17 Arizona and Texas Woman's University on Monday in Denton, Texas.

Fifth-year Arkansas Coach Jordyn Wieber said the scheduling was done to begin preparing the Razorbacks (2-2-1) for postseason competition. Tonight's meet will be on a raised podium, another preview of the postseason setup.

"I think this weekend is probably the best opportunity to prepare us both for our SEC Championship and our regional weekend that we're going to have," Wieber said. "So being on podium is a great opportunity for us. SEC Championships are on podium.

"It has a little different feel to it. A little bigger stage, a little bit bouncier, so i think that'll be a great learning experience for all of our athletes and just a cool opportunity."

The Razorbacks opened the season by scoring 197 or better in three consecutive meets for the first time, including a school-record 197.525 in a tie at Alabama. But since then they've fallen into the low 196s by having to count falls in losses at current No. 3 LSU and No. 6 Florida. Arkansas had two falls right out of the gate on the uneven bars at LSU, then had two athletes come off the balance beam last week at Florida. They have dropped 12 spots in the rankings in the past three weeks.

"The vibe of the team was just a willingness to figure out what are the mental challenges that they're experiencing because it's very obvious that it's not a gymnastics problem," Wieber said. "It's very much just how to manage mentally the pressure and the expectations when you start as well as we started in the beginning of the season.

"So I'm really proud of the way they talked through it and the way they've attacked the practices this week. The only thing we can do is just keep getting better and improving the issues that have kept showing up on the competition floor. I have no doubt they're going to bounce back this weekend."

Oklahoma, led by 18th year Coach KJ Kindler, has won the past two NCAA championships with six national titles in the past nine years. The Sooners (15-0) are ranked No. 1 in average score on the uneven bars, balance beam and floor exercise, and they're No. 2 on the vault.

Oklahoma has competed in only one dual meet so far, a 197.775 to 197.15 win over Denver, and the Sooners have taken down SEC opponents Kentucky and LSU among their other competitions. Junior Jordan Bowers is fourth in the all-around rankings with an average of 39.65 and senior Katherine LeVasseur is ninth (39.579).

Cal has been in prime form under married co-coaches Justin Howell and Elisabeth Crandall-Howell. The Bears' only losses have come in the Mean Girls Super 16 against Alabama and in an Arizona State Tri-meet against Oklahoma. Junior Mya Lauzon is No. 2 in the all-around rankings (39.69).

Washington edged San Jose State 195.0 to 194.95 in its season opener and has not won since, including in consecutive Pac-12 meets against Cal, UCLA, Stanford and Utah.

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