The No. 1 Sooners find themselves in both familiar and unfamiliar territory heading into the Tuscaloosa NCAA Regional beginning Friday.
Oklahoma is the top seed in its region, the No. 2 seed in the country and the favorite to advance to the NCAA finals later in April. That’s familiar territory. On the flip side, OU is coming off its first loss since 2018 — just the second career defeat for its five seniors and the first collegiate shortcoming for the rest of its gymnasts. That’s unfamiliar territory.
“They needed (to lose),” OU head coach K.J. Kindler said in a Wednesday press conference. “They needed that kick and I’ve seen them respond the last two weeks like they haven’t done all year long.
“I think it’s something they needed to give us a little boost.”
OU’s lineup will be bolstered with junior Olivia Trautman’s return to the all-around in Tuscaloosa this weekend, graduate assistant and former OU gymnast Maggie Nichols told The Daily on Tuesday. Trautman, who had foot surgery after breaking her heel for the second time in as many years before the season, hasn’t competed on floor since her freshman year, when she didn’t score below 9.9 and had her first career perfect 10.
“She's come to the gym every single day and has worked so hard to fix those little mistakes that she made at Big 12’s,” Nichols said. “She looks super strong right now.”
Without Trautman in the all-around, the Sooners haven’t been as dominant this season as previous teams. Their season scoring averages are at their lowest point since 2012 and they’ve had poor performances — most noticeably in their loss to Denver on March 20 and in a narrow win over West Virginia on Jan. 31.
Throughout the season, Kindler has pointed to not having complete meets as a primary reason for OU’s struggles. Against the Pioneers, though, the team didn’t respond to the pressure.
“We haven’t had as many tight, high profile meets that really pushed us against the wall and I think when their back was against the wall they didn’t respond the way they should,” Kindler said. “We got nervous, we held back. Instead of being aggressive on our vault landings they were trying not to fail ... and that’s not where we need to be.
“To me, our biggest error was how we handled adversity on floor … we need to handle it better.”
The lack of high profile meets can largely be attributed to COVID-19. The Sooners were slated to compete against multiple top-10 SEC teams, including Florida and Arkansas, but the SEC made the decision to only compete within its conference for the season.
The SEC’s choice resulted in OU’s only top-10 competitions over the course of the season coming against Utah and Denver, as opposed to its usually loaded schedule.
“I know that Coach Kindler desires competing with the best in the nation,” OU color commentator Kelly Garrison-Funderburk told The Daily on Thursday. “She believes in the philosophy that iron sharpens iron and this validates that.”
Despite the difficulties the 2021 season has presented, Oklahoma has shown its ceiling is among the highest of any teams. Its season best score is second only to co-No.1 Florida, and the Sooners tied with the Gators for the best National Qualifying Score in the country.
When OU is at its best, senior star Anastasia Webb is at her best. Webb doesn’t falter often, but when she does, the team doesn’t perform at the level it’s capable of.
The American Athletic Inc. Award finalist has led her team throughout the year with three perfect 10s to pair with several all-conference awards. And as the only senior gymnast who hasn’t decided whether to finish her career or come back for an extra year, she’ll have at least one more opportunity to lead.
“She feels an urgency to be her very best, and she’s definitely coming up with it,” Kindler said. “A lot of people can feel that pressure and can crumble but she’s thriving under it.”
The Tuscaloosa Regional begins at 7 p.m. CT Friday, April 2 on ESPN 3.