AUBURN — The Auburn Tigers have been here before, even if the circumstances are a little different. The Tigers’ historic 2022 postseason run began in the friendly confines of Neville Arena, hosting a regional and facing a few familiar foes from the SEC, including Florida and Kentucky. They may have been the newcomers of that year, but in front of that home crowd, the team hit its stride and made it to the Final Four.
No. 12 Auburn is here again, with unfamiliar foes but equally as imposing opponents in Utah and UCLA, and head coach Jeff Graba knows what it's like to be on both sides of an event like this.
“We've been both those teams, we've been the team that's ranked high, and we've been the team that's the underdog. It's not easy,” Graba said. “We need to stop worrying about who we have to be. Because we can't beat anybody if we're not, you know, on our game, if we beat ourselves.”
Graba and Auburn head west for the second round of the 2023 NCAA Los Angeles Regional Championship, competing in the afternoon session as the No. 3 seed, with No. 2 Utah, Southern Utah and Washington all involved in the meet.
Auburn’s afternoon will begin on the floor, with the Tigers being the No. 13 floor team in the country. The event will be anchored by fifth-year senior and three-time SEC Specialist of the Year, Derrian Gobourne. Gobourne has been on this stage twice before, as a national champion her freshman year and being national runner-up in two events last year.
“We don't need to do extra numbers. We don't need to overanalyze, all we need to do is just be mentally on our game,” said Gobourne. “Physically, we're there. Like I said, we've had a lot of things prepared. And so we are prepared. And I just want us to go on there and do what we do.”
From there, Auburn will go to vault, led by senior, SEC Gymnastics Scholar Athlete of the Year and Co-SEC Champion in the event, Cassie Stevens. Stevens has not been able to match her career-high of 9.975 this season, but the Yurchenko 1.5 has resulted in several scores of 9.9 and above, including a 9.950.
“I didn't even know that until Jeff [Graba] told me and I honestly didn't even know that was gonna happen and until he also told me but it just means a lot,” Stevens said on being the third SEC champion in program history. “It goes to show that like your hard work does pay off and even through like the hills and the valleys like in the end it's all worth it.”
For the third rotation, Auburn will go to the uneven bars. The Tigers are the No. 10 bars team in the country, making it their best event this season, but the return of the 2022 SEC champion on bars, Sunisa Lee, is still unclear.
Lee has been out since the Kentucky meet on March 4 weeks with a “non-gymnastics related health issue,” and Jeff Graba said she is still day-to-day. Without Lee, Auburn is led by its trio of seniors, Gobourne, Stevens and Aria Brusch, with each scoring a 9.9 in the event during the SEC Championship.
Auburn will have to end the session on its toughest event, beam. The Tigers are ranked No. 16 in NQS on beam, and without last year’s national champion Suni Lee, the margin for error is a lot smaller.
The key to success in the event could be sophomore Sophia Groth. Last season, Groth scored a 9.95 on beam eight times and was one of Auburn’s best in the event, but with offseason rule changes, she has been trying to perfect a new routine throughout the year.
During the SEC Championship meet, Groth was able to put it all together and score a 9.875, one of her highest scores in the event this season and a significant step for one of Auburn’s future stars.
“I think it was important that she hits beam in a pressure situation like that, because it's going to come down to beam, it's going to come down to whatever is in the back of your mind, whatever you have doubt, whatever event that is,” Graba said. “These meets, they bring out the worst in you if you bring that to the table, so I was glad she got that out of the way.”
Graba and his team have already made the trip, and now they wait for the afternoon session, which is scheduled to begin at 4 p.m. CST and be broadcast on ESPN+.
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