FAYETTEVILLE — Jordyn Wieber’s first three meets as a rookie head coach at the University of Arkansas in 2020 were against powerhouses Florida, Oklahoma and Denver, all ranked in the top three when the Razorbacks faced them.
Nothing has changed in year two for the preseason No. 15 Razorbacks, who open their SEC-only regular season tonight at 7:15 at No. 3 LSU at the Maravich Assembly Center in Baton Rouge, La.
“I think it’s a great way to start our season,” Wieber said. “We saw something similar last year when we started with Florida, Oklahoma and Denver. … I probably would prefer it that way, starting out against tough teams is what makes our team stronger and pushes us to be better.”
After the road meet tonight, the Razorbacks host LSU again next week, then welcome preseason No. 1 Florida into Barnhill Arena.
The Razorbacks showed signs of progress in 2020 under the former Olympic gold medalist Wieber, who led the program to consecutive SEC wins over Missouri and Georgia and a 4-8 record before the COVID-19 pandemic halted the season just before a home meet versus Penn State.
While the Razorbacks are losing key routines from Jessica Yamzon and Hailey Garner, they have added a strong group of newcomers to a lineup that includes veterans like seniors Sarah Shaffer and Sophia Carter and juniors Kennedy Hambrick and Amanda Elswick, along with sophomores Bailey Lovett and Kiara Gianfagna, who had big impacts last season.
“I think we are going to be better than we were last year,” Wieber said. “I feel last year we made a lot of really good strides, in terms of culture, in terms of quality of gymnastics, in terms of sticking. We made even more improvements I feel like this year.”
Wieber said the coronavirus issues that shut down many gyms over the summer probably prevented the Razorbacks from adding the number of newer and more difficult skills they would have liked. However, she still thinks Arkansas can score better than it’s 10-meet average of 196.155 from last year, highlighted by a 196.95 in the win over No. 10 Georgia.
“Our team has really dialed in on some of the small details,” Wieber said. “We’ve upgraded a few skills here and there. … Those that are doing the same routines as last year have found ways to improve and get their score about a half-tenth better. That’s been our motto the last few weeks, how can every person on the team get a half-tenth better this week.”
The Razorbacks have a 19-meet losing streak against the Tigers, capped by a 197.125 to 195.725 road loss last year in the program’s only sub-196.0 showing after the season opener. LSU will have a different feel this year, with Jay Clark, a long-time assistant and former Georgia head coach, taking over for 44-year coach D-D Breaux.
The Tigers (14-2, 5-2 in 2020) are led by sophomore Kiya Johnson, a first-team All-American on the floor exercise, vault and all-around last year.
Hambrick had a breakout sophomore season, ranking 16th nationally in the all-around with a national qualifying score (NQS) of 39.385, earning regular season All-America honors and claiming 11 event titles.
Carter added eight individual titles in 2020 to bring her career total to 24 and was an All-American for ranking 11th on the floor exercise with an NQS of 9.925.
Wieber said Hambrick and Shaffer would likely compete in the all-around today. Gianfagna, a regular in the all-around as a freshman last season, will miss the meet following a foot injury, but she is expected back in the lineup next week.
Wieber said the Razorbacks have a goal of scoring in the mid 196s in their opener.
“We don’t focus a ton on our opponent because we really walk into any arena — it could be any color, any team — and we just have to do our job,” she said. “We’re not playing defense, we’re not playing offense.
“We just show up. We’ve talked a lot to our team about visualizing what it’s going to look like to go to an arena like LSU, where you’re in a sea of purple and it looks different than Barnhill Arena. We’re really pushing them to visualize that and mentally prepare for what that’s going to look like and feel like because we are going to have a lot of freshmen stepping into the lineup.
“We don’t really talk about winning the meet a whole lot. We just talk about showing up and performing at our very best every time we get the opportunity. If we can do that I think we’ll see more wins this season.”