AUBURN, Ala.—It had been three years since Auburn Gymnastics participated in an NCAA Regional event. The 2020 season came to an end due to COVID-19 and positive tests within the program kept the team out of the Regionals in 2021.
For seniors Derrian Gobourne and Drew Watson, returning to the regionals was a long-time coming. But for the rest of the team, it was something they had never experienced before.
“This is what you try to tell them postseason is like, but until you experience it, you don't understand it,” head coach Jeff Graba said.
The Tigers were up to the challenge, finishing second at the meet with a score of 197.500, only behind Kentucky’s 197.750, and advanced to the NCAA Regional Final which will take place on Saturday.
First on the floor, Auburn had a rough start to the meet with two 9.775s from Aria Brusch, in just her second floor routine since February 5, and Drew Watson.
“I think it hit them like a ton of bricks early,” Graba said. "In the end, you just got to survive and advance.”
Suni Lee and Sophia Groth scored back-to-back 9.9s and Derrian Gobourne led the way once again on floor, scoring a 9.95 to anchor the Tigers’ first rotation. They finished with a score of 49.375, just second behind Kentucky’s 49.400 on vault.
Auburn did not match Kentucky’s pace on vault, scoring 49.350 in the second rotation. Cassie Stevens and Drew Watson led the way with scores of 9.925 and 9.9. Suni Lee scored 9.825 as the anchor for the Tigers, but appeared to be in some pain after an awkward landing.
“She landed bad on her one touch, which isn't a lot of fun on that vault, that's a tough vault,” Graba said. “But she had warmed them up better than she'd ever competed them. So she's in a really good spot if we can keep her healthy.”
Auburn was on uneven bars next, trying to keep pace with Kentucky, which still led 98.925-98.725. Sophia Groth made a mistake on her uneven bars routine and scored 9.7. Derrian Gobourne and Cassie Stevens helped the team bounce back in the rotation with two 9.85s and Suni Lee, as she has done many times before, anchored with a 9.95, and one judge gave her a 10.
The Tigers headed to their fourth rotation with a berth in the Sweet Sixteen on the line. The squad responded with their best rotation of the day, and the best score on beam at the meet, 49.475.
“I just wanted to see them actually start fighting,” Graba said. “It finally got to beam and rallied around each other.”
Olivia Hollingsworth started the rotation, scoring 9.7. Aria Brusch and Cassie Stevens followed that with scores of 9.825 and 9.85 respectively. Sophia Groth got her highest score of the day with a huge 9.95. Gabby McLaughlin scored 9.875 on beam, sealing Auburn’s spot in the NCAA Regional Final.
Then, all eyes turned to Suni Lee, in the anchor position for the third time today. The Olympic Gold Medalist and SEC Freshman of the Year came through once again with a 9.975, including two judges giving her a 10.
Raena Worley won the all-around title, but three Auburn gymnasts were right behind her. Suni Lee finished in second with a score of 39.650, Cassie Stevens was in third with 39.475 and Sophia Groth, despite two sub-9.8 scores, finished in fourth.
Auburn now advances to the second round of the NCAA Regionals for the first time since 2019 behind veterans in Derrian Gobourne and Drew Watson as well as freshmen like Suni Lee.
“I think today prepared us a lot for Saturday, just knowing like logistics, but I feel like Saturday, I know, it's gonna be more amped up,” Stevens said.
The Tigers will face Kentucky as well as the top-two teams from Session 2 later tonight. That session includes Florida, Denver, Ohio State and Iowa State. The NCAA Regional will begin inside Neville Arena at 5 p.m. CST.