AUBURN — When Jeff Graba arrived on the Plains, he wanted to rebuild the Auburn Gymnastics program in two ways: bring the crowds into the newly built Auburn Arena and take down Alabama.
“When I got here, there were a total of 66 season tickets sold,” said Graba in an interview on WEGL 91.1 FM. “We took that first year and had a really good plan to try to sell more than 66 season tickets and yeah we’ve moved from 66 to well over 6,000 season tickets now.”
With the crowds in attendance, Graba made history in 2016 and helped break a 117-meet losing streak, giving the then No. 8 Tigers a huge win over No. 4 Alabama in front of the third sellout in Auburn Arena gymnastics history. With wins over the Tide in 2020 and last season, the formerly one-sided rivalry Auburn has become one the premier in all of college gymnastics.
“That was the goal when we got here. I mean, we wanted to make it a rivalry,” Graba said. “I really wanted it to be on the level of what we see with basketball and football and some of the other sports. So it's just it's rewarding that it's turned into that. And I think it's good for the sport.”
Auburn has secured three of its last four meets against Alabama in Neville Arena but is on a two-meet losing streak. Now, the rivalry returns to Tuscaloosa and to a place that Auburn has never won. The Florida Gators, three-time national champions, secured just their second win ever in Tuscaloosa a few weeks ago.
A difficult task in front of the Tigers, and even more history on the line, but Graba and his team are keeping things in perspective and focusing on the improvement needed down the line.
“Maybe your best shot as a 10% shot at winning in somebody else's house. So everything's stacked against you,” Graba said of focusing on the meet itself. “So you got to be really careful, you don't go down that road. But it is one of the things that's left to knock over. And I do think this team is talented enough.”
One of the talents that leads this team is fifth-year senior Derrian Gobourne. The queen of Auburn gymnastics was a national champion during her freshman season and a runner-up on bars and vault in 2022, and she has returned this year to lead the team once more.
Gobourne has played a big role in each of Auburn’s last two wins against the Tide but has never beaten them on the road.
“It will mean everything because it'll be history, not only for me, but all the girls who have been alongside me, who have been working so hard this year,” said Gobourne. “And like I said, it would be history, and it would just taste so good if we could just reach it.”
Gobourne, who is No. 20 in the country for her vault routine and tied for second on the floor, has stolen the show in back-to-back home meets for Auburn, narrowly missing perfect 10s. She has seen a lot of hostile environments in her time on the Plains and believes this team is ready for another.
“The environments are very different, but I feel like if they can get through meet here at our Auburn home, I feel like that's one of the craziest, loudest, most exciting environments,” she said. “I feel like they're fully prepared. I mean that they kind of just need to go in and do what they do.”
Olivia Hollingsworth stepped up big for the Tigers on beam last season, leading off in all but one meet during the Final Four run. Named to the SEC Academic Honor Roll in 2022, Hollingsworth has continued to improve in her junior season, competing in the all-around over the last three meets.
“This week, we're not trying to put all the pressure on ourselves, but we're just trying to get better and just focus on the little things,” said Hollingsworth. “We've been at a lot of places that have a crazy crowd. So we just kind of try to use it to our advantage and just pretend that they're cheering for us.”
With Jeff Graba as their guide, this team is on the precipice of history once again. The Tigers broke nearly every program record last season and are looking for more of the same this season. A win over Alabama in Tuscaloosa would be another milestone, another item to check off the list, but Graba wants to keep his focus on returning to the tournament and even the Final Four.
“In the end, if you had gave me a shot and said I have to beat Alabama this week, or I have to beat them in the Elite Eight to make the final four, or the Final Four to win the national championship, I would take that win over this one,” Graba said. “So just got to be smart about what we're doing.”
The Iron Bowl of gymnastics on February 8 in Tuscaloosa is set to begin at 6:30 p.m. CST with the broadcast scheduled for the SEC Network.
Don't miss out! Subscribe to our newsletter and get our top stories every weekday morning.