Bulldogs Beat

‘Like a rock’: How Vega’s consistency, vault surge led GymDogs to season-high score

Sabrina Vega celebrates after the final pass of her floor routine. She scored a season-high 9.95 in Georgia’s win over Arkansas.
Sabrina Vega celebrates after the final pass of her floor routine. She scored a season-high 9.95 in Georgia’s win over Arkansas. Special to the Telegraph

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GymDogs 2018-2019 Season

Georgia’s GymDogs have a new confidence and swagger this season with a squad of nine freshmen and only five returners. Here are some of the highlights from the 2018-2019 season.

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Once Sabrina Vega sets her mind to achieving something, there’s a determination to get it done. Entering this season, it was all about the vault routine and that work came to fruition Friday night.

Vega, a third-year gymnast for Georgia, was thrown into the vault rotation last season, and had capped out at a 9.8 on the event as a sophomore — a good, but not great score and certainly below the standards for a gymnast who anchors on two events. Her goal this season was to notch a 9.9, and she did so at Auburn on Jan. 25.

Now back at home, there was no chance Vega could show it off without such little flaw in consecutive weeks, right? Vega defied those odds. New week, same score and same exuberance shining from the junior’s face.

“I hit my highlight of the year with a 9.9 on vault — twice now,” Vega said. “My goal of the year was to do that, and now it’s about improving the little things here-and-there.”

Georgia’s start to vault was a tad rocky in front of a packed-out Stegeman Coliseum crowd, but then Vega came along with the “do your job” mentality, she said. After a stuck landing, she was the first domino as her record-tying score set up the fireworks for Lukacs and Sydney Snead. These two flash variations of a Yurchenko with a 10.0 start value — Snead’s being a one-and-a-half, while the freshman boasts a double-twisting Yurchenko that is rarely seen around college.

No worries to Mikayla Magee and Rachel Baumann who each began the rotation with a 9.775, because this duo saved the day. Lukacs kicked it off with a career-high 9.925, then Snead was the same-old Snead and tied her best with a 9.95 and sent Stegeman Coliseum into one of its first roars.

But it all started with a fiery Vega. She said it’s about building off of the score of the previous competitor and Vega gave this example: If a team opens with a 9.85, then the hope is for the next to be a 9.9 and eventually finish with a 10. Georgia didn’t get a perfect score on this night, but was close and followed the concept.

“She’s a great role model for all of us to go do that,” Snead said, who posted an all-around score of 39.575, a stumble on floor short of a career-high. “It isn’t easy out there to do a full and get a 9.9. To see that, it was rewarding for her and also makes us so proud. It changed the momentum, because all of us saw Sabrina get that score and said ‘OK, we can go do that now.’”

That late surge allowed Georgia to notch a 49.400 on the event and tie its season-high set last Friday in a loss to Auburn. After vault, it was a full-on surge of confidence as the GymDogs (3-3, 1-2 SEC) either set-or-topped their career high on every routine and it led to a 197.475-196.125 win over Arkansas. Georgia’s score marked the fourth-highest nationally this season.

Georgia’s final tally was a result of the tone-setter as there’s a drastic jump on vault from last season. The GymDogs ranked 12th nationally in 2018 with an average of 49.025, but there’s a new swagger and excitement with it. First event (at home), best event.

“We were thinking about it when we saw a 49.4 against Auburn, because it really does just fuel us,” Vega said. “We have amazing freshmen and amazing vaults in the lineup. We push each other in the gym and make each other better.”

Many of Georgia’s improvements on vault are stemmed from newly-hired assistant coach Jason Vonk from George Washington. Vonk was hired in June after former assistant Charlie Tamayo was dismissed from the program mid-season in 2018, and it left the GymDogs without an instructor for the latter half of that campaign. To the misfortune of the vault team, it was the group affected.

Vonk brings a resurgence to vault as Georgia ranked third-nationally entering Friday’s meet, and that’ll likely be boosted after setting the season-high consecutive weeks. Vonk has two things in his favor: a full complement of depth and six competitors (if you haven’t gotten word of this rare deficiency last season, this might be the final time it is mentioned) and a group of talented freshmen who serve at the back end of the rotation — most notably Lukacs, who features a Yurchenko double full.

“I’m really thankful for him, because he’s really helped me,” Vega said. “He does it step-by-step, builds my confidence and it allows me to go out and hit every time. He’s a super-technical coach who has perfected every little thing in our vaults.”

Vega’s situation on vault is rather intriguing, because it’s something that she hadn’t performed collegiately all-too-often. It was something she started with last season, but could only peak at a 9.8 score. A season-plus later, the junior has topped that total in five-of-six meets and has cemented herself as a source of dependability on the event.

As Vega persists upon her desire for consistency, her past two meets have epitomized it. There has been zero sign of wavering and the former World Champion has been nothing short of dominant. It starts on vault with the consecutive 9.9 showings, then it’s capped by the infamous moonwalk on beam and the anchoring of the floor rotation — featured with a newly-implemented full-in middle pass — to finish it off.

“She does the same routines no matter what happens before, and that’s the good quality about Sabrina,” Georgia head coach Courtney Kupets Carter said. “She does her same mental preparation and isn’t really affected. The thing about her vault is that she’s getting a bigger-and-better block, legs are straight and is finding the landing. That score will only go up.”

Vega’s lowest score in the past two weeks was the 9.9s on vault, and that was her favorite moment. That should be a telling sign, because everything else has scored higher.

“She’s consistent and like a rock,” Snead said. “At some times, she’s having fun and laughing. At others, she’s focused and knows she’ll hit. That’s great to have, especially anchoring beam and floor. We know she’ll have a solid routine, and she’s come through and delivered.”

Vega’s performance on Friday epitomized what Georgia needs with a youthful team with nine freshmen: a competitor who is relentless in perfection one moment, and a giddy encourager in the next. Her most-important goal is to stay consistent with posting team-leading scores on each event, and the surge has begun toward it.

On the vault, though, she’s a bit dissatisfied in one area. So, if Vega adds an element to her routine and sees a perfect score in the season-and-a-half before leaving the program, she might’ve predicted it.

“I haven’t had a 10 yet,” Vega said. “So there’s always room for improvement.”