Bulldogs Beat

Ending the ’10’ drought: UGA’s regional success hints at return toward legacy status

Marissa Oakley reacts to learning she scored first 10 on bars since Kupets Carter

GymDogs' Marissa Oakley scored a perfect 10 on her bars routine Saturday night in the NCAA Regionals competition in Stegeman Coliseum. When informed it was the first 10 on bars since head coach Courtney Kupets Carter, this was her reaction.
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GymDogs' Marissa Oakley scored a perfect 10 on her bars routine Saturday night in the NCAA Regionals competition in Stegeman Coliseum. When informed it was the first 10 on bars since head coach Courtney Kupets Carter, this was her reaction.

Marissa Oakley’s feet touched the ground from a bar dismount and her first sight was ceaseless screaming from 13 of her teammates. They were dancing without any semblance of rhythm and every sense of exuberance. All Oakley could do was walk with her mouth open, somewhat in shock, because she knew it was her best routine as a collegiate gymnast.

Georgia gymnasts approached a volume matching that of a large crowd and made Stegeman Coliseum a deafening environment. A few GymDogs had their own way of celebrating: Sabrina Vega stood still while wearing a heat wrap and a jaw-dropping facial expression. Rachael Lukacs looked at Oakley and waved her arms up-and-down for a five-minute period. Sydney Snead stood outside the huddle to cherish the emotion of her final meet in Athens.

“I was kind of speechless, and I didn’t really know what to do,” said Oakley, who recorded a 9.9-or-higher on uneven bars five previous times this season. “I knew it was a good routine, but I don’t think about scores.”

Her moment then came as judges hoisted up the perfect 10, and some tears were added to the celebration. This was a feat that warranted much more than a celebratory salute, and it’s a near-miracle that the corral (which held the team in a huddle) didn’t come bustling down.

A perfect score was something Georgia waited for all season, and that made it both a win for Oakley and the team. The extremely-difficult feat has become commonplace for some programs, and the GymDogs have come oh-so-close to conquering it on many occasions.

“She is the bar queen. Every handstand is like, BAM!” Lukacs said. “She is a queen, attacks everything, is on and is someone you can trust on bars. She’s capable of that 10, which you saw tonight.”

Oakley’s perfect score catapulted Georgia to a 198.050 score, in which the GymDogs finished second to No. 1 Oklahoma (198.475) and advanced to the NCAA national championships (April 19-20). Georgia will compete in the second semifinal with Oklahoma, Denver and Oregon State and must finish in the top-two to advance to the finals.

Georgia, entering its rotation on uneven bars, was in third place to Cal-Berkeley by .025 and was in danger of seeing its season end. But the momentum switch from the sophomore allowed Georgia to set a season-high on bars (49.575) and follow it with a 49.550 on beam.

“I did know it was a tight meet,” Snead said. “We tried to stay invested in each routine and just fight — for every handstand, every tenth and every skill. That showed how mentally tough we are.”

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Georgia’s Marissa Oakley is celebrated after scoring a perfect 10 on bars during the Gymnastics NCAA Regional in Athens, Ga., on Saturday, Apr. 6, 2019. KRISTIN M. BRADSHAW Special to the Telegraph

The Kupets Carter-Yoculan Leebern factor

It marked Georgia’s highest score in a regional since the 1998 southeast regional and the first time to score over 198 since a February 2009 win over Florida.

Georgia’s last perfect routine on bars came from now-head coach Courtney Kupets Carter in 2009, in the aforementioned meet against the Gators. Snead had the last 10 for the GymDogs in 2018, which took place on floor. Kupets Carter was also the last to do it on that event … and you might’ve guessed it was against Florida in 2009.

“Finally! We don’t need my name on it anymore,” Kupets Carter said with her youngest daughter, Savannah Grace, in her lap during post-meet media availability. “Come on, we need more of those. It is so meaningful for me, because sometimes I’ll get more nervous for them than I ever did as an athlete. It is great to have another 10 in this program and it won’t be the last, either. It won’t take 10 years to get it again, I can guarantee that.”

Saturday night’s win drew multiple connections to that specific 2009 meet, and the GymDogs’ latest performance made it feel like that season in which they won 32 meets and other days of old. Georgia no longer showed itself to be meddling amongst the top teams, content to have a postseason berth. A determination was revived. A confidence had returned. Any complacency was gone.

Georgia displayed that the glory days aren’t too far away from returning. Kupets Carter, in her second season as the head coach, has a template of how she wants certain things to be done. She has seen success before, so there isn’t much of a pressing need to change it. That is the mantra as Kupets Carter hired her old coach, Suzanne Yoculan Leebern, to a volunteer position: follow a similar blueprint and see similar results.

It’s been a driving force in the program’s development over a calendar year. And the results begin to compile: multiple contributing freshmen who compete on two to three events, a leap in the national rankings from mid-20s to a spot as high as No. 6, a goal of finishing Top 3 at the championships with a chance to bring a title to the program.

“If you were to ask me if I thought this could happen in two years? Probably not,” Georgia athletics director Greg McGarity said in a phone interview with The Telegraph. “You hope this is the way it always turns out, but it doesn’t always work that way. You see things flourish like they have this year, and it creates a sense of excitement and knowing that we’re getting better.”

When Georgia hired Kupets Carter prior to the 2017 season, the vision for the program’s reboot was visible at nearly every corner of Stegeman Coliseum. It’s a gymnastics program that has the most-illustrious history inside the arena with 10 national titles under Suzanne Yoculan and five consecutive titles from 2005-09 with assistant Jay Clark (now at LSU) by her side. It was all about getting Georgia back, and that’s why McGarity brought in the most-heralded collegiate gymnast for a coaching role with her former coach working alongside.

“Suzanne was one of those transformational coaches, and I don’t know whether that’ll be done again,” McGarity said. “It is so difficult to do it one time, but to do it multiple times? Those are once in a lifetime coaches who do that over time. I think the pressure is on to reach those standards, and that is especially tough to do.”

Georgia’s biggest progression toward the success it’s seeing, however, may be the development of Kupets Carter in her own role. There were no spats about team control between Kupets Carter and Yoculan Leebern, but the volunteer coach’s experience came into play last season. Georgia’s roster was in a bit of flux after the firing of Danna Durante, former assistant coach Charlie Tamayo had to be let go and Kupets Carter had to do more on-the-job learning. Yoculan Leebern was able to fill those voids and took on a heavier capability.

In year two, that’s not so much the case. Kupets Carter has shown many more vocal capabilities, according to her former coach, and serves as an inspiration during team meetings to her young roster of GymDogs.

“From a technical coaching standpoint, she is lightyears ahead of me and my ability,” Yoculan Leebern said. “She has done the skills, competed them and has done everything in the book. She knows how it feels, knows how to balance her schedule and can relate to the athletes more than most coaches in the country.”

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Georgia’s Marissa Oakley competing on the bars during the NCAA Athens gymnastics championship Regional Finals in Athens, Ga., on Saturday, April 6, 2019. Oakley scored a perfect 10. Joshua L. Jones AP

‘Unstoppable’

All of those qualities came together Saturday night as Georgia was performing at its best-possible level. In a regional that featured a fourth-place score of 197.600 by Kentucky (which would’ve been the fourth-best score of teams to advance if it weren’t for the current format) and plenty of intense competition, Georgia was able to prevail.

In addition to Oakley’s stellar showing, Mikayla Magee recorded a 9.85 on floor after being held out of the lineup for a prolonged stretch. Georgia’s next highlight came to finish the meet on beam as the GymDogs scored three 9.95s when pressure was at its highest.

Earlier in the season, Kupets Carter saw her team’s peak at 197.7 or thereabouts. But Vega told her head coach “we can do this,” Saturday morning, and the GymDogs wrote terms of encouragement like “ATTACK IT” on their wrists. Hours later, the second-year coach’s projection was proven wrong.

“Apparently, we have a higher peak than I expected,” Kupets Carter said. “(Georgia assistant coach) Josh (Overton) is always in the gym saying we’re ‘climbing that mountain.’ Maybe I was on the mountain next to it, but I am totally fine with the mountain we’re on today.”

As frantic as the cheers were for Oakley, they might have been even louder when Vega’s score was hoisted and the hanging scoreboard updated.

A step closer to experiencing what Georgia gymnastics was and can be.

“We know we can do this in nationals if we stay in our zone and attack like we did,” Lukacs said. “Like I said, we’re unstoppable.”

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