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GymDog Rachael Lukacs competes on uneven bars during the NCAA Athens Regional at Stegeman Coliseum in Athens, Georgia, on Saturday, April 6, 2019. The GymDogs came in second place with a score of 198.050 and will advance to the NCAA Women’s Gymnastics Championships in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo/Rebecca Wright)

Even in a packed Stegeman Coliseum, the sound of a body hitting the mat is deafening. In Georgia gymnastics’ meet against LSU on Jan. 10, two GymDogs found themselves on the floor in the middle of their bars routines, forcing Georgia to count a fall in its first home meet.

Senior Sabrina Vega, who is included in the bars lineup for the first time since she came to Georgia, was one of the gymnasts who suffered a fall in Georgia’s first dual meet. Vega said when head coach Courtney Kupets Carter spoke with her after the routine, Kupets Carter encouraged Vega to move on from the mistake.

“Take your grips off, and you leave it with your grips on the ground. You get rid of it,” Kupets Carter told Vega.

The other fall came from the GymDog called the “bar queen” by Rachael Lukacs last year, junior Marissa Oakley. Oakley’s mistake was uncharacteristic, as she’s one of the most experienced bar workers on the team.

She performed consistently well on the event last season, once earning a perfect 10 at the NCAA Athens Regional meet. She hit over 9.9 seven times during 2019 season, but Jan. 10 was the first dual meet, and there were plenty of nerves to work through.

For the 2020 season, the GymDogs need to fill three critical spots in the bars lineup. Three of the top bars competitors from 2019 are out for various reasons in 2020.

Alexa Al-Hameed medically retired after her first year at Georgia. She scored a 9.9 or better in six meets over the course of her freshman campaign and peaked at 9.95. All-around gymnast Sydney Snead graduated in May 2019, leaving behind a consistent average at 9.798, and current senior Rachel Dickson, who is now out for the season with an Achilles injury, contributed an average score of 9.652 on bars.

With three large gaps to fill, the gymnastics coaching staff has shuffled around gymnasts to find a sweet spot in the bars rotation.

“There’s definitely a lot of room for improvement for us [on bars],” Lukacs said. “It is hard losing those three, but we know we have no option but to step it up.”

Lukacs started having a regular spot in the bars rotation on March 8, 2019. The star on floor and vault filled in for injured teammate Emily Schild in 2019 and is a mainstay in the 2020 bars lineup as Schild, a junior, continues to recover.

Complications and questions with the consistency of the lineup have already arisen in the new season, as the team works out kinks with injuries and fresh legs. Bars was the lowest-scoring event in its first two meets — going 48.15 at the Critique Classic Invitational on Jan. 3 and 48.05 against LSU on Jan. 10.

Still, Kupets Carter remained confident about the future of the bars lineup after the meet.

“Practice through time will help this team be exactly where we need to be on that event,” Kupets Carter said. “A few little mistakes here and there, not enough practice for some of us that had injuries, and a few meets down the road, [it will] be a far distant thought that we had a problem on bars.”

Along with further training, the future on bars also finds hope in the youth of the team. Four of the gymnasts in the bars lineup against LSU were underclassmen, with freshmen Amanda Cashman (9.75) and Haley De Jong (9.8) leading the way on Jan. 10. The two freshmen earned two of the best three scores at the Critique Classic on Jan. 3 as well, alongside freshman Loulie Hattaway (9.75).

“Rachael Lukacs shouted out our freshmen for stepping up and doing what they needed to do,” Kupets Carter said of the meet prior. “Of course there’s little things they can improve on but at the same time she recognized as well that our freshmen stepped up into a role that’s difficult and to see freshmen do that is exciting.”

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