With the help of a disco ball, flashing lights and smoke, the University of Kentucky gymnastics team returned to Rupp Arena with style and swagger Friday night, putting on a performance fitting of the pre-meet pyrotechnics that occurred during the team’s introduction.
UK — ranked No. 13 in the country in the preseason Women’s Collegiate Gymnastics Association poll — opened its 2022 season with the return of Excite Night inside Rupp Arena after a two-year absence, with the Wildcats claiming a 196.525-194.750 victory over Ball State.
The occasion was marked by a stellar effort by UK junior Raena Worley, who was the only gymnast on either team to compete in all four events (bars, beam, floor and vault).
Worley secured outright victories in the bars, beam and vault by recording the highest individual scores, and Worley tied with UK sophomore Hailey Davis for the best score on floor. Worley was named the all-around champion of the meet, the seventh time that she’s won an all-around meet title at UK.
It was a comprehensive victory in front of 9,226 fans to mark Kentucky’s first meet of the season after last week’s scheduled meet between Arizona State and UK was canceled due to COVID-19 issues in the Arizona State program.
Kentucky was supposed to compete against No. 15 Georgia on Excite Night in a Southeastern Conference showdown of ranked teams, but the Bulldogs dropped out after COVID-19 issues in its program. Ball State was announced as the replacement for Georgia on Thursday afternoon.
“Competition has a rhythm all its own and you can’t simulate it,” UK gymnastics Coach Tim Garrison said. “Just to get started and get going feels good.”
“It was just such an amazing feeling to be able to be back in Rupp,” Worley, who won the vault for the first time with a score of 9.900, said. “Competing at Memorial (Coliseum) is one thing, but being able to be in such a big arena with all the fans is so different.”
Kentucky scored better than Ball State in all four events Friday night.
Garrison said prior to Friday’s meet that he expected bars and vault to be two of UK’s strongest events this season. The Wildcats’ performance in those events on Friday was what Garrison was looking for, as UK recorded team scores of 49.275 in bars and 49.225 in vault.
“We started really strong on vault, landings could have been a little bit stronger, but that’s first-meet stuff,” Garrison said. “Bars (were) very similar. Had great swing, lot of amplitude, didn’t hold back one bit and missed a few landings here and there. But overall I thought we performed really well.”
After competing inside Memorial Coliseum for all four of its home meets last season, the Wildcats fed off the energy from the Rupp Arena crowd.
Garrison singled out Worley as a gymnast who embraces the excitement provided by that large of a crowd.
“She’s putting on a show, she involves everybody in this room,” Garrison said of Worley. “The biggest thing that we noticed about her when we were recruiting her is her absolute love for the sport. . . . When they’re 18, 19, 20, we look for that 12-year-old that runs in the gym with their bag on their shoulder and they can’t get enough of it. That’s Raena Worley.”
To Garrison’s point, Worley’s post-meet interview with the media was delayed as she interacted with young fans in the Rupp Arena stands.
“The energy in the arena is off the charts,” Worley said. “There’s always someone that you’re wanting to look at or somebody that you’re going to make contact with, and being able to interact with the audience makes it so fun.”
Friday’s pre-meet events in Rupp Arena including honoring several former UK gymnasts as well as the program’s first head coach, Leah Little, who oversaw the Wildcats when Excite Night came into existence.
In addition to Worley’s impressive outing, sophomore Bailey Bunn also displayed toughness after suffering a fall during her beam routine. Bunn regrouped to record a 9.775 score as the first Wildcat on floor.
“She took a pretty bad spill on beam and has been very limited in training,” Garrison said, also noting that Bunn pulled herself out of competing in vault. “Regardless of the fact that she didn’t have the greatest beam performance today, she was willing to put herself out there.”
Bunn and Worley are the two returning UK gymnasts who reached the NCAA Championship semifinals last season as individuals: Bunn on beam and Worley on vault.
As a team last season, UK fell just short of advancing from the NCAA regional finals. This season, UK returns all 24 routines from that event, which produced a 197.600 score that tied the UK program’s all-time scoring record.
“We definitely have depth on vault and bars. We have a lot of people that are really strong on beam,” Garrison said. “Floor I think we could be a little deeper . . . we had a few struggles on the last passes tonight.”
Kentucky is next in action on Friday night at No. 6 Alabama, in another meet that will be broadcast on the SEC Network.
UK’s next home meet will be Jan. 29 in Memorial Coliseum against No. 7 Missouri, a meet that is also set to be broadcast on the SEC Network.
No. 13 Kentucky at No. 6 Alabama
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday
TV: SEC Network