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UO looks to vault over Baylor

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Ducks' acrobatics, tumbling team enters national tourney as the No. 1 seed

COURTESY: ERIC EVANS PHOTOGRAPHY - The Oregon Ducks acrobatics and tumbling team performs the pyramid event in a Feb. 25 victory over Baylor at Matthew Knight Arena. When Oregon Ducks acrobatics and tumbling coach Chelsea Shaw talks about where the sport is headed, the word opportunity rolls off her tongue with the regularity of a crisp tumbling pass.

• The opportunity for club gymnasts and cheer team members to continue competing beyond high school.

• The opportunity for more young women to earn athletic scholarships.

• The opportunity for female athletes to grow stronger physically, mentally and emotionally — while having a lot of fun.

A more immediate opportunity comes this week — the chance to return the Ducks to national supremacy. The Ducks won the first four National Collegiate Acrobatics and Tumbling Association championships, but Oregon has been runner-up to Baylor two years in a row. The 2017 championship is on the line this weekend at Azusa, California, with the Ducks and Bears expected to again meet in the finals, which are Saturday night.

  • NCATA national championships

    At Azusa Pacific University, Azusa, Calif.

    Thursday — Oregon vs. King University, 2 p.m.

    Friday — Semifinals, 5 and 7 p.m.

    Saturday — Individual event finals, 10 a.m. Team championship, 7 p.m.

    Webstream: All competition streamed live. Link through Azusa Pacific athletics at http://athletics.apu.edu/

  • Oregon introduced the sport in 2009 as stunts and gymnastics and was a founding member of the NCATA the following year. In its eighth season, the 40-member UO team attracted more than 1,000 fans to each of its home meets at Matthew Knight Arena.

    "It's fast-paced. It's head-to-head. It's really competitive," Shaw says. "You don't have to know acrobatics and tumbling (details) to enjoy yourself at a meet. It's entertaining and impressive and fun to watch."

    Some elements of the sport — such as the toss event — have influences from competitive cheer. But USA Gymnastics sanctions the NCATA meets and in 2013 added a national team acrobatics and tumbling program to develop athletes for international competition.

    The uniforms are similar to volleyball uniforms.

    At Oregon, acrobatics and tumbling is a varsity sport within the athletic department. Like baseball, it has 12 full scholarships Shaw can divide among a roster of up to 40 athletes.

    Baylor and Oregon are the two big-conference universities among the 18 schools in the NCATA. The University of Maryland was another founding member of the NCATA, but the program was one of eight varsity sports discontinued there in 2012 budget cuts.

    With Maryland gone, Oregon and Baylor have dominated the sport in its current format. The Ducks won the first four NCATA championships before losing the past two years to Baylor in the national championship match.COURTESY: ERIC EVANS PHOTOGRAPHY - Three Oregon athletes (from left), senior Taylr Keating, senior Blaire Wilson and senior Natalie Jaynes, celebrate during an acrobatics and tumbling match.

    The Ducks put an end to the Bears' 22-match win streak under coach Felicia Mulkey with a Feb. 25 win at Matt Knight. Mulkey, a pioneer of the sport, coached the Ducks to their four national titles before taking the Baylor job.

    Baylor beat Oregon later this season in Waco, Texas, but the Ducks enter the nationals seeded No. 1 — a nice boost, according to Shaw.

    Being the highest seed means Oregon will have prime match times and will go second in each of the six events that make up a match.

    The loss to Baylor "discouraged" the Ducks, Shaw says, but the No. 1 seed is helping restore their confidence. "This has kind of picked their heads back up," Shaw says.

    Oregon opens against No. 8 seed King University of Bristol, Tennessee, at 2 p.m. Thursday. But the target for the Ducks is an anticipated showdown at 7 p.m. Saturday with Baylor for the title.

    Acrobatics and tumbling meets feature head-to-head competition between two teams. There are six events, scored by judges. A meet starts with a compulsory event, during which athletes perform mandated skills in four heats — one for each of the sport's fundamental events: acrobatics, pyramid, toss and tumbling. The compulsory event is followed by four events featuring competition in acrobatics, pyramid, toss and tumbling.

    As in gymnastics, these routines have a start value. The more difficult the routine, the higher the potential score.

    The final event of the meet is the team competition, where as many as 24 athletes from each team participate in a 2 1/2-minute performance set to music that includes all of the sport's skills.

    "The strategy is to get the most difficulty with the best execution," Shaw says.COURTESY: ERIC EVANS PHOTOGRAPHY - Oregon Ducks acrobatics and tumbling coach Chelsea Shaw hugs one of her athletes, Krista Phillips, at a meet in Matthew Knight Arena.

    For the most part, the skills the Ducks perform at nationals will be those they used to go 6-1 during the regular season.

    "We do make some tweaks to our routines" to hopefully record top scores at the championship tournament, Shaw says.

    One of the challenges of the national championships is overcoming fatigue. The Ducks had seven meets over a two-month regular season but will need to win three in three days — with added individual championships for those who qualify for that separate competition.

    "It is difficult," Shaw says. "You are going to be fatigued on that last day when it counts for the national championship, so it's just important they're mentally tough and that even fatigued they can go into it and know they can still do their best."

    Preparing for the championship push is what those 20 training hours each week are about. The team practices three days a week at the Moshofsky Center football practice facility and twice a week at MKA.

    Athletes who grew up in gymnastics usually transition well to college acrobatics and tumbling, but there is a learning curve.

    "Going from competing by yourself usually in gymnastics, moving to a non-spring floor, working with a team, training a lot of hours a week," are all part of the transition, Shaw says. "Also adding on the weightlifting. The majority of kids we get have never weightlifted a day in their life, and then when they get to us they're lifting three days a week. That's a big transition for not only their bodies but for their minds."

    Months of preparation behind them, Shaw is excited to see what her Ducks can accomplish this weekend. Thirty-two of her 40 athletes were on last season's runner-up squad.

    Junior Taylor Galvin was an NCATA All-American last season. Three Ducks have won NCATA Athlete of the Week honors this season: Galvin, senior Krista Phillips and junior Alexis Cross.

    "As a coach, you're so invested and you almost want (success) more than them. But this team has wanted it from the start," Shaw says, crediting 10 highly motivated seniors. "This group of girls has had the right mind-set and work ethic from the start. That's been really fun as a coach, to work with people who want it."

    Building a championship-caliber roster requires nationwide recruiting. The UO team has eight members from Oregon and three from Washington. But none of the 19 athletes committed to join the program next season are from the Pacific Northwest.

    Shaw says social media is an important tool in spreading the word to gymnastics clubs and other potential athletes.

    "We have a lot of different disciplines of gymnastics that we recruit from, which is fun, but it also makes it tough because there are so many athletes," she says. "The toughest part of our job in recruiting is really just educating gyms and programs and athletes about what this sport is and the opportunities it could provide them. But once they're educated, they're normally all-in — if not for Oregon, then for the sport in general, and we help them go to a university where they would best fit."

    Shaw has watched the sport gain momentum since she arrived in Eugene to compete on one of the first college varsity teams to be supported by a university athletics department. It was introduced as a stunts and gymnastics team in 2009-10. The next year, Oregon played host to five teams for the first NCATA national tournament, defeating Maryland for the first of its four consecutive championships.

    Arriving at Oregon as a sophomore in 2009-10, Shaw helped establish that early success. A two-time NCATA All-American on Oregon's 2011 and 2012 championship teams, she won individual event national titles in toss, pyramid and tumbling at Oregon.

    The long-range goal is for acrobatics and tumbling to become an NCAA-sponsored sport. First, it must get added to the NCAA Emerging Sports for Women, a list that includes equestrian, rugby and triathlon.

    "Every year it is evolving.The requirements and the difficulty have been significantly raised," Shaw says. "We still train similarly. Every year I think we get a little bit smarter in how we train our kids, just to get them to the strength and endurance they need while keeping the injuries as low as we can."

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  • ACROBATICS AND TUMBLING

    Formed in 2010 and sanctioned by USA Gymnastics, the National Collegiate Acrobatics and Tumbling Association currently includes programs at 18 colleges and universities. Though not affiliated with the NCAA, programs are required to follow NCAA eligibility guidelines.

    WHAT'S IN A MEET

    The NCATA meet format includes six segments. Teams compete in four skills: acrobatics (or acro), pyramid, toss and tumbling. Judges score the team's execution, with a 10.0 being the top score possible for each heat.

    Each meet begins with a compulsory event and ends with a team performance set to music.

    Compulsory event (40 points): Teams must execute pre-determined elements in each skill. Two groups from each team perform the required acrobatic skills, one group from each team performs a preset pyramid routine, two groups from each team perform the preset toss, and eight athletes from each team participate in the compulsory tumbling heat performing four predetermined synchronized skills.  

    Acro event (30 points): Teams of two to four athletes work together to perform acrobatic skills that include flips, twists and more elements in three of 45-second heats, with the top possible score of 10.0 for each heat.

    Pyramid event (30 points): Athletes build a human pyramid and are scored for their execution during construction, height and dismount. Each of three heats has a 10.0 top score.

    Toss event (30 points): One athlete is tossed into the air by a group of teammates and performs skills such as a flip or twist. One of the three heats requires two groups to perform a synchronized toss.

  • The final two events of a meet are worth the most points.

    Tumbling event (60 possible points): Each team makes six tumbling passes worth up to 10 points each. The passes including synchronized two-, three-, and four-person passes and three single passes focusing on specific skills.

    Team event (110 possible points): Up to 24 athletes from each team perform a choreographed, 150-second routine that incorporates all of the sport's elements.

    TOTAL SCORE

    The maximum score is 300 points.

    Oregon's program record score is 291.48, set in 2016 at Azusa Pacific.

    Oregon's 2017 high is 288.425 in a home meet against Fairmont State.