Fri. Jun 9th, 2023

AUBURN — Jeff Graba has had enough of the one-sided rivalry talk.
“I got tired of hearing about the streak against us,” the 12th-year Auburn gymnastics coach said. “Whatever, 1979 — 117 in a row.”
He stopped himself.
“Not that I would remember any of those numbers.”
It’s a thing of the past now, that unfathomable 117-meet losing streak to rival Alabama. Graba was the coach who ended it in 2016. He led Auburn to another win in 2020. Now, since 1979, Auburn is a more respectable 2-124 against the Crimson Tide.
Team scores are a more important sign of progress in January than wins.
But Graba also knows not to take for granted when a golden opportunity appears to beat the in-state nemesis.
With Olympic all-around gold medalist Suni Lee and a deep legion of leaders, the time is now for Auburn. The Iron Bowl of Gymnastics has is at equal footing: The No. 8 Tigers host No. 9 Alabama on Friday (8 p.m., ESPN2) at Auburn Arena, the first of two regular-season matchups.
Graba has the long game in mind.
“If we match up against them at regionals — if we’re really good and they’re really good, which it looks like both of us are — then we’re going to have to meet them in the postseason,” he said. “That’s where I want to win. And I don’t want to sacrifice the potential for that by taking stupid chances right now. … So the score is more important for this one.
“But I’m not going to say I don’t want to win. I want a high score and I want to win. And anything else is under-performing for this team probably.”
Auburn isn’t shying away from the scale. Graba edited a motivational video about Kobe Bryant this week, showing the team how the late NBA superstar prepared for premier games.
That’s how Graba wants Auburn to see this matchup.
“I can’t hide that from them,” he said. “We all want this meet. This is why they came here. They came here for sellouts. They came here for national and international broadcasts, and they came here to go against the best. This is a top-10 matchup in Auburn Arena. I think it’s one of a handful of top-10 matchups in Auburn gymnastics history. And what we want is for this to not be the anomaly. We want this to be the norm.”
Auburn has experimented heavily with various rotations and upgraded routines in the first three meets. That’s a tribute to the team’s depth — it’s not just Lee carrying these record scores — but Graba hopes to play it safer Friday.
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For instance, Lee was able to try an upgraded beam routine last week against Iowa State because her teammates had hit their routines. Auburn could afford to drop Lee’s score if she made a mistake, which she did. No harm done. The Tigers recorded their second-highest team score in program history (197.35).
And that’s still lower than Alabama’s highest team score of 197.65. 
The risk-reward isn’t the same this week. Against Alabama, it’s all about nailing the fundamentals of routines as planned. Adding more difficult skills can come later. On beam, Alabama has defending national champion Luisa Blanco.
“We experimented more than I wanted to last Friday. That was them not preparing,” Graba said. “Their warm-up didn’t go as well as I’d hoped, and there has to be repercussions for that in lineups, because we’re a deep team. We have a lot of people who deserve opportunities. I don’t want to go through that this week. …  I would really like to be right about who I select, and it goes according to plan.”
The depth has been resounding. Take Sophia Groth, an overlooked freshman relative to Lee. She has recorded Auburn’s highest score on vault at two of the first three meets, and she has scored consecutive 9.9 on beam.
“Coming into college, everybody is watching you on a single event,” Groth said. “So that’s definitely a lot more stressful, and it adds a lot of pressure.” 
The program’s record attendance last Friday didn’t bother her too much.
Or take the cast of veterans, such as Cassie Stevens, Drew Watson and Derrian Gobourne. Gobourne might have a floor routine thrilling enough to match Alabama’s defending national champ Lexi Graber. 
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Graba is right — the win that matters is in March — but chances like this don’t come around often. 
Protect home turf against ‘Bama.
“There is definitely a bit of a different feel in the gym this week,” Stevens said. “Just everything a little more amped up in preparation for that.”


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