By Brady Johnson
UO Athletic Communications Assistant
EUGENE, Ore. – The feeling after Oregon’s regular season finale was foreign, yet shared unequivocally amongst every player on the team.
For the first time in precisely three years and 14 days, the UO acrobatics and tumbling team lost. Oregon’s win streak was snapped at 25 meets and 31 victories with a defeat at the hands of rising contenders Azusa Pacific on April 7. For all but five players on the team, it was the first loss they’ve experienced at Oregon.
The meet was close, granted, but that was no comfort for the three-time defending champions. The Ducks were unmistakably upset with their performance, yet excited for an opportunity they haven’t had since 2011 – to pick themselves up after a loss.
“It was a close meet that could’ve gone either way, but we knew that we didn’t perform our best and gave it away,” said head coach Felicia Mulkey. “Everyone had the same expression; I don’t like this feeling, so let’s never let our guards down again. That was the overwhelming consensus. This is our wake up call.”
The National Collegiate Acrobatics and Tumbling Association’s championship bracket was released last week, honoring Oregon (9-1) and host Azusa Pacific (4-2) with the top two seeds. Potentially set on a collision course for the finals, it’s impossible not to draw towards the revenge narrative. Mulkey understands that, but insists the team’s top priority at this point is to learn from the loss – a rare opportunity for UO that could potentially be a blessing in disguise.
Oregon’s had a few moments to rally upon this season – a narrow tri-meet win against Quinnipiac and APU and a low team score in its first road meet – but nothing quite as galvanizing as a loss. Mulkey insisted the team has taken it to heart, and turned in very positive practices following the meet.
“Sometimes you need to lose to learn how to win, and I think that’s the way the team is looking at it,” said Mulkey. “Sometimes losing is a needed feeling to remind you of what it takes and re-motivate you.”
Oregon now faces the task of walking a thin line between learning from the loss, while not dwelling on it or looking too far down the bracket. After all, the Ducks will have multiple obstacles to hurdle prior to a potential rematch with Azusa Pacific in the finals.
The NCATA National Championships will begin Thursday with the individual event finals at 5 p.m. (PT). Oregon will be represented by at least one group in every event. UO’s title defense will begin Friday at 3 p.m. (PT), meeting the winner of the Alderson-Broaddus and King University play-in meet. With a win, Oregon will meet either fourth-seeded Baylor or fifth-seeded Fairmont State in the semifinals.
“The road to the title is littered with big obstacles,” Mulkey said. “It has a true tournament feel this year. We have a few dangerous teams on our side of the bracket. We have a tough trek in front of us.”
As for the other side of the bracket, all eyes are on second-seeded Azusa Pacific. The Cougars open with seventh-seeded Gannon, with the winner meeting third-seeded Quinnipiac or sixth-seeded Hawaii Pacific.
From a neutral point of view, the tournament is shaping up to be the most exciting postseason event in the NCATA’s young history. Hosting the tournament at the Felix Events Center in Azusa, Calif., can Azusa Pacific handle the pressure and prove its merit, or will the dynastic Ducks make it four straight titles? Mulkey isn’t inclined to speculate or play up the revenge angle, but admits it’s good for the sport.
“If nothing else, the loss just adds excitement to the tournament,” said Mulkey, responding to a question related to revenge. “The victory margins have been small this season, and that’s a sign that the sport is growing and I think that’s very positive. Even without the revenge angle, this tournament is going to be exciting. The girls are pumped for it.”
This season, Oregon has benefited from four returning All-Americans in Sarah Moreno, Nicole Erlichman and Natasha Katzaroff, and reigning Performer of the Year Tara Lubert. Despite impressive individual accolades, the team’s success primarily can be attributed to a collective effort and attitude.
With four first-year programs, the national champion will need to win twice in one day to take the title this season. This brings physicality into play, something Mulkey expects will be to UO’s advantage as the strongest team in the nation.
For the Ducks to run the table, UO will also need to rely on a few thoughts that have become the team’s modus operandi this season; clean up all the smallest of details and work towards consistency. With an average team score of 282.5, the best in the nation, Oregon has been largely successful at doing so.
Now, entering the final days of the season, the lone remaining question facing Oregon is – can they do it when it counts? Mulkey thinks so.
“We’re looking to build consistency and peak at the right time, and we’re hoping that comes at the end of this week,” Mulkey said. “There’s a point in the season when your team turns the corner and you just sense it as a coach. I think we’re turning that corner this week.”