Lindsey Cheek, who earned All-America honors as a freshman in 2011, returns in 2012 for the Gym Dogs.
Dec. 28, 2011
By simply walking into the Suzanne Yoculan Gymnastics Center, it’s easy to see the standard the Georgia Gym Dogs have set for themselves.
Banners from 10 NCAA Championships hang from the ceiling along with paintings of 61 gymnasts who have earned a total of 318 All-America honors. A display in the middle of the gym lists Georgia’s 16 SEC Championships.
It has been nearly 40 years since the program’s inception in 1973, and the expectations are the same now as they were in 1987 when Georgia captured its first national title and in 2009 when Georgia became the first program to reach double-digit NCAA crowns.
“We walk in every day and understand the standard we’ve set over the last 20 years,” said third-year head coach Jay Clark. “The goals and intentions of this program have not changed.”
The 2011 season turned into an injury management season for the Gym Dogs, who struggled to even field a full lineup in some meets. Still, Georgia returned to the NCAA Championships and finished ninth nationally.
“We expect to take another step forward this year,” Clark said. “Our goal is to get things back to where our fans’ expectations are and to what we expect from ourselves.”
Georgia returns 11 gymnasts from last year’s squad including reigning NCAA uneven bars champion Kat Ding, who scored a 9.9 or higher in 10 out of 14 bar routines last year and could compete in the all-around. She is one of three seniors on the 2012 squad along with Mariel Box and Gina Nuccio.
The Gym Dogs also return 2011 All-Americans Noel Couch and Lindsey Cheek. Couch competed in the all-around in every meet last year, and Cheek became the first Georgia freshman to earn All-American honors on vault since 2006.
“Shayla has the potential to step forward as a junior,” Clark said. “She has shown a tremendous amount of growth in terms of her leadership within the team. To this point of the preseason, she has been more consistent than I’ve seen her since she’s been here.”
The Gym Dogs will also have the services of a pair of gymnasts who missed their first seasons in 2011 due to injuries. Kaylan Earls, who was on track to be in the lineup on three events in 2011, ruptured her left Achilles tendon two weeks prior to the season and missed her entire freshman year. The two-time Junior Olympic all-around champion will make her Gym Dog debut in 2012.
Another 2011 freshman, Bekah Bennetts, underwent ankle reconstruction surgery after arriving at UGA last fall and is expected to contribute as a vault specialist.
The Gym Dogs could also see key contributions from sophomores Cat Hires and Laura Moffatt, who had strong finishes to the 2011 season, in addition to junior Kati Breazeal, who will provide depth on the balance beam.
“We have a workman-like group and a lot of role players. We think if everybody knows their role and fills their role, we can compete with anybody. We are excited about that. It will be interesting to see if we have anybody on this team who steps up to the forefront and becomes that superstar. I do believe we have a couple of people who have that potential.”
Clark, who last year was named the ninth-best recruiter in all of college sports, is bringing in five freshmen to the fold this season including Chelsea Davis, Demetria Hunte, Whitney Kirby, Sarah Persinger and Camille Pfister. Davis, Persinger and Pfsiter joined the team in the fall, while Hunte and Kirby will enroll in January.
“Chelsea and Sarah could have an impact on all four events,” Clark said. “That’s what we need is someone who can come in and give us depth on all four events. We anticipate great things from both of them.
“We think we have a group that really came together at an early point in the year. Rather than rallying when they have to, they seem to be coming together now and they seem to be on a mission. We’ve had years where we won a championship and didn’t have the best talent, and we’ve had years where we won it just based on our chemistry and the character of our team. We feel like we have good character with this bunch.”
Georgia opens the season at home against Denver on Jan. 6. The Gym Dogs face a tough road slate with meets at 2011 Super Six teams Alabama, Michigan and Utah in addition to a meet at Florida.