Three-year-old Brooklyn Carter kickstarted a series of positive vibes.
Before she began her day in preschool last Friday, a video was sent to her mother, Georgia head coach Courtney Kupets Carter. It was a pep talk to the GymDogs and Carter directed it toward sophomore Marissa Oakley.
Those two are best friends, after all. At least that’s the belief of the toddler who spends ample time in the practice gym.
“I love you Marissa,” Brooklyn yelled in the video, as recalled by her mother. “Teamwork makes the dream work.”
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Brooklyn was uber-excited for Georgia’s showdown with No. 3 Florida, so she made sure her preschool teachers knew. The impatience couldn’t be contained to watch her “best friend” on television. Little did Brooklyn know that the GymDogs would have success, and all she wanted to do was see her “mommy” and friends on the screen as she watched from home. But that would prove to be prophetic.
Hours later, No. 7 Georgia (6-3, 4-2 SEC) pulled off a 197.450-197.375 win at No. 3 Florida, which marked the team’s first win in Gators territory since 2008. A special feat for the team, and especially for lone senior Sydney Snead who had never beaten Florida in her four-year career — despite scoring a perfect 10 on floor last season.
Snead has a video of her reaction after Georgia clinched the victory, and it’s one that may even be enough of a highlight to post to Instagram. She reenacted the motion to her teammates: displaying a vertical by jumping with both feet in midair. There was true elation as the GymDogs pulled off the big win, and it’s the most Kupets Carter has seen throughout her two-year tenure.
“It gives you chills to think about, because it shows how much improvement we’ve made,” Snead said. “It is so rewarding, and I think we looked great out there. It was definitely emotional.”
That started when Georgia was clicking mentally in the pre-meet team meeting. The GymDogs sit in a circle and give words of encouragement, and they’ll usually toss around the basic terms such as ‘have fun’ or ‘do great.’ But these were thoughtful, and there was suddenly a determination to perform well when the odds were against Georgia in a hostile road environment.
Georgia’s first in-meet hurdle was one that stymied it during each road meet: the opening bars rotation. Georgia ranks 17th on bars, and that’s despite many solid scores inside Stegeman Coliseum. This rotation, however, was on-point in an away meet (capped by another 9.95 by Oakley) and one that the GymDogs had to take advantage of. Their mojo was flowing, and there was a sense of confidence in pulling off a victory.
“We can actually win this thing,” Snead said as she looked over to fellow all-around competitor Rachel Dickson.
After Georgia continued its per-usual dominance on vault, then came the make-or-break event of balance beam. A 49.475 on the rotation was what clinched the victory for the GymDogs, but it wasn’t without a bit of angst. It came down to the performance of junior Sabrina Vega, who has been rock-solid throughout the season as Georgia’s anchor on beam. But this was a different test, because noise was at another level.
Florida freshman Trinity Thomas brought the arena to a roar as her floor routine received a perfect 10 from one judge, and Vega had to stay composed in the midst of chaos. A day prior, Georgia practiced a silent meet in which no noise was made. While opposite on the surface, both cases produced a similar effect for Vega.
“I couldn’t hear myself think,” Vega said, who didn’t look at the numbers during the meet to decipher what she needed to score. She was confident in her performance, however, and scored a 9.95. “It was probably the loudest I’ve ever experienced doing a routine, and practically deafening. It was weird, but also an amazing experience.”
Florida’s final hope was Alyssa Baumann, sister of Georgia freshman Rachel Baumann. After there was plenty of hype around the two tightly-bonded sisters competing against each other for the first time, it came down to this. Alyssa needed a 9.925 (the same score that Rachel posted on beam, a career-high) in order for Florida to claim the victory, but came a full point short.
Nevertheless, the Baumann sisters made an everlasting memory and it must’ve been a good thing that wins and losses aren’t the leading factor in gymnastics. Each of the Baumanns parted ways with a sense of joy, and so did their parents who were dressed in a Florida shirt and Georgia accessories. For the SEC Championships, the Baumanns have purchased split t-shirts with a team logo on each side.
“It was really sweet, and it was great to see her,” Rachel said, who embraced her sister in a joyous hug after the meet. “Alyssa was happy for me. I know she was hard on herself, because she didn’t have her best meet.”
This bout, however, went the way of the younger Baumann and gives the GymDogs a late-season surge when they needed it most.
The first road test is out of the way, but another daunting challenge looms at No. 4 LSU (8-3 3-3 SEC). There’s a refreshed belief that the GymDogs can pull off consecutive road wins, but their focus is individual scores. Georgia has reached the 197-or-higher milestone on multiple occasions this season, but now wants to boost its season high (197.475 against Arkansas) by not having to keep a score below a 9.8. That’s something Kupets Carter has focused on throughout practice as the numbers are referenced, and Georgia only kept one sub-9.8 score against Florida — Emily Schild’s 9.775 on bars.
After finding a rhythm on the road, Georgia is suddenly rolling and it’s the ideal time to do so with three regular-season meets remaining on the schedule. There are conversations taking place about the National Qualifying Score (NQS) and which improvements must be made in order for the GymDogs to return to nationals in April.
“I looked over to Courtney at a team meeting and said, ‘you know, we can be pushing a 198 when we’re on,’” Snead said. “We absolutely have more potential, and we’re going to get higher. It was huge to get this in an away meet.”
NQS is quite the tricky metric in collegiate gymnastics, but it’s the all-important one that determines postseason berth and seeding for the 36 teams which make regionals (Georgia, by the way, will host its own this season). Georgia ranked seventh as the first batch of rankings were released, and the NQS includes three road meets and three other meets (home or away). The highest score is dropped and the other five are averaged.
If the season ended today, Georgia would count its meets against Florida, Kentucky (197.3) Iowa State (197), Auburn (196.4) and Missouri (196.3). That’s why the meet against LSU carries such heavy importance, because the 196.3 could be replaced by Friday’s score if the GymDogs score higher against the Tigers than they did at Missouri.
Nevertheless, Georgia knows its climb toward the summit must begin now before the postseason. Kupets Carter hasn’t officially analyzed it, but sees her team’s peak at a score between 197.7-197.85. That rare 198 territory may even be touched as Vega envisioned a 49.4-or-higher on each event in a single meet.
“That’s where I see us doing our full-out gymnastics and our best,” Kupets Carter said. “It could probably go above that, honestly...They have a lot of potential in them.”
As Georgia continues to realize its potential by each passing week, Brooklyn could be the catalyst toward more big victories. She is coming for her mother’s job, after all.
“She wants to coach the GymDogs and be a pilot with daddy,” Kupets Carter said. “She wants to do both. We’ll see how that goes.”