By Max Baker Special for the Post-Dispatch
COLUMBIA, Mo. — When Shannon Welker took over as Missouri’s gymnastics coach nine years ago, he considered the program a diamond in the rough.
The program had the resources, the facilities and the financial dedication, but it lacked direction and consistency, he said. Almost a decade later, the same assistant coaches Welker brought in for the 2014 season when United finished No. 41 in the country have remained.
Slower than Welker likely would have preferred, Missouri (5-3, 0-3 SEC) has built a program that ranks among the best in the nation. Heading into Sunday’s conference finals home game against No. 16 Arkansas and No. 5 Louisiana State, the No. 11 Tigers are looking to improve their standing in the conference and the league. NCAA seeded position.
“I think you’d be hard-pressed to look at any Power Five school and find a coaching staff that’s been together as long as we have been,” Welker said. “This continuity has been the key to our ability to get better and better. …Like everything, you just have to stick to things and be persistent and eventually those things will work if you have enough time and enough motivation.
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Life in SEC gymnastics is not easy. Despite being ranked No. 11, the Tigers are sixth out of eight teams in the conference. Their goal is to finish in the top half of the conference, but that’s a tough task. United are winless in the conference, but these results don’t tell the whole story. Missouri went undefeated against non-conference competition and also scored a school-best 197.775 on Feb. 4 against No. 2 Florida. Scores, not wins and losses, decide seeding. Mizzou moved up to 9th in the national standings after the Florida encounter.
“It’s a balance. You could have fantastic competition like we did against Florida and end up not winning this game by the tiniest of margins,” Welker said. “At the end of it, as a coaching staff we certainly all wanted to win this too, it’s hard to walk away and be disappointed when you have a performance like that.”
Missouri currently ranks No. 7 in the nation on balance beam, No. 10 on floor exercise, No. 12 on uneven bars and No. 19 on vault. The Tigers peaked at No. 2 on beam earlier this season.
A top-10 finish would be the team’s first under Welker ahead of the NCAA’s 36 regional teams in late March. Eight teams then qualify for the NCAA championships.
In the coming weeks, Missouri could get more support from one of its strongest gymnasts. As a rookie, Helen Hu picked up two WCGA Regular Season All-America honors and was named SEC Events Specialist of the Year.
“I was having fun all the time,” said Hu, a sophomore in a red shirt. “Once I got into the mindset and the culture here, once I got a lot stronger from all the weightlifting, I was just having fun with it. The competition was not really the same as in the club. It wasn’t something I dreaded or made me nervous.
After a stellar first-year campaign, Hu missed all of last year with a knee injury and has struggled with back pain for much of this year. Welker relieved her by competing only on the balance beam rotation, her favorite event. As early as later this month, however, she could return to competition on uneven bars.
“We learned to make sure we don’t get greedy and we let her go and capitalized on the events that she does best that would also be the easiest on her body,” Welker said. “We think we’ll be able to make a good back third of the season and the playoffs with her.”
But how does Missouri take the next step as a program to compete for national titles? Welker said the Tigers need to keep recruiting and changing the culture. This year’s team has more depth than any Hu has competed in the past. Last year, MU participated in competitions with 10 gymnasts competing, but now MU has 13 or 14 contributors in each meet.
The highlight of the season may have been Florida, but Hu thinks the Tigers can break that record.
“We did really well, but we can do better than that,” she said. “We are definitely looking to break it down again. I think we are quite capable of hitting a 198 on a good day.
On Sunday, Missouri will have a chance to claim its first SEC victory of the season. Unlike most SEC fixtures, this will feature three schools and Welker approaches it as a mini SEC championship.
“We’re not going to neglect Arkansas either,” Welker said. “I know they haven’t had quite the year they had last year, but they have some talented young girls on their team. I wouldn’t be surprised if a team finishes first this weekend.