It’s a bit like starting the season off with a bang.
More like an explosion.
Auburn hosts Alabama in the rivalry meet tonight in raucous Auburn Arena, kicking off Auburn’s home schedule against its most important opponent in front of its biggest crowd, right out of the gates for a young, reloading Auburn team.
The event starts at 8 p.m. It’s set to be televised on SEC Network. Auburn expects a packed house.
And there, Auburn has the chance to learn just where it stands early this season by charging into one of the highest-pressure environments it’ll face all season.
“Big crowds: That’s part of the business,” Auburn head coach Jeff Graba said simply this week. “Bright lights: That’s part of the business in this sport.”
Auburn has seven true freshmen on its 21-gymnast roster entering the showdown. But with challenge comes the learning opportunity, in that coaches and gymnasts alike never know quite how that extra adrenaline is going to affect them on the big stage until they hit that big stage.
After tonight, they’ll know.
“Nothing gets our team pumped up more than a sellout crowd at Auburn Arena. So I’m really hoping that’ll happen this Friday,” Auburn senior Emma Slappey said.
“And especially, Bama being our first meet — the Iron Bowl of gymnastics — I know we’re really going to bring it on Friday.”
Auburn enters after placing third out of seven teams out in California at the Collegiate Challenge event on Jan. 4. Slappey threw down a 9.8 on beam there, while Derrian Gobourne and Drew Watson led the team on vault with two 9.9 scores there. The team tallied a 194.375.
Graba said things there went “almost according to plan,” with some frustratingly predictable mistakes being made but with some younger gymnasts faring better than expected.
“I’m excited about our young people because they handled it well last week, and I’m hoping that we just keep building off of that,” Graba said.
Of course, SEC gymnastics — and the rivalry meet — is a different beast.
“We got a really good first glimpse out in California with a bunch of high-ranked teams, but it wasn’t an environment like in the SEC,” Graba said. “So we have to get ourselves figured out really quick because we go on the road right away to LSU in a pretty hostile environment.”
Powerhouse Alabama is making its season debut in Auburn Arena.
“We have a very young team,” Slappey said. “All the mistakes that we made were very fixable. We didn’t really have any major mistakes. So we’re hoping to build off of that for next week.”
Friday’s broadcast on SEC Network will be anchor of a gymnastics tripleheader on the network.
After tonight’s meet, Auburn will compete at LSU next Friday before returning home for its next Auburn Arena meet on Jan. 24 against Missouri.
“The first time in front a home crowd is really exciting,” Auburn senior Gracie Day said. “But it being my last first time in front of a home crowd, it’s a tad bit emotional, but I’m just excited to be back in front of our home crowd.”