Rachel Lukacs performs her floor routine at a University of Georgia gymanstics meet against Arkansas on Feb. 1, 2019 at Stegeman Coliseum in Athens, Georgia. The Gym Dawgs defeated their opponents 197.475 - 196.125 after all events. (Photo/Julian Alexander)

As freshman Rachael Lukacs emerged as one of Georgia’s top performers this season, head coach Courtney Kupets Carter noticed her contributions both on the scoreboard and on the mat.

Lukacs competes in three events — vault, bars and floor — and claims Georgia’s second-best national qualifying score on vault with a 9.905. In only her first season, Lukacs’ energy has already become infectious to the team during meets.

“It’s just a natural quality of hers to be a leader,” Kupets Carter said. “That’s a role that’s kind of been thrust upon her versus her choosing it.”

Freshmen make up nine of 15 spots on Georgia’s roster this season, and eight of them contributed more than once throughout the year. Four freshmen — Alexa Al-Hameed, Rachel Baumann, Lukacs and Mikayla Magee — performed in every meet, and the class accounted for 11 of 24 routines at the SEC championship two weeks ago.

Georgia will bring an inexperienced team into the Athens Regional at Stegeman Coliseum April 5-6. This year’s new structure to regionals could even the GymDogs’ playing field against regional competitors with fewer newcomers.

“This is new for everybody this year,” Kupets Carter said. “[The freshmen] get to experience it for the first time and don’t have anything to compare it to.”

The previous postseason format consisted of a Super Six final in the national championship with teams qualifying in regional meets held across multiple weekends. Now, the top two teams emerge from two four-team regionals to meet in a four-team super regional the next day, shifting to a quick turnaround between meets.

While exhaustion between back-to-back meets at full power poses a challenge, the GymDogs prepared throughout the season with weekly intrasquad competitions held during every practice before a meet.

“Your body, your mindset, everything has to be in sync knowing what we need to do at regionals,” senior Sydney Snead said. “I think prepping for that all season long [with intrasquads] and the meet has been really helpful mentally and physically.”

Georgia spent portions of the season developing team chemistry with its influx of new gymnasts. Kupets Carter tasked each member of the class with finding a spot where she best fit in the program.

Just as their season begins to wrap up with regionals, the GymDogs’ massive group of freshmen have discovered their roles on the team.

Some freshmen perform multiple routines, like Baumann, Lukacs, and Magee, while others specialize in one event, like Al-Hameed on bars and Abbey Ward on vault.

“After a couple of meets, I felt my place — like I deserve to be here,” Baumann said. “I know this is my spot in the lineup, and I really enjoy it because the pressure is kind of off when you know that.”

Even gymnasts recovering from injury, like Sterlyn Austin or Alyssa Perez-Lugones, found supporting roles helping with equipment and encouraging teammates.

“It’s really big for every athlete on our team to know where they stand and find a role,” Kupets Carter said. “Being invested and involved in this team no matter what you’re doing is the biggest part. If you’re not giving, most likely you’re taking away from what the team is doing.”

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