Ohio State competes at the 2023 Norman regional.

Ohio State Earns Sweet 16 Berth, Proves it Can Compete With the Best

The Ohio State Buckeyes finished second to Oklahoma in the Norman regional round two session two semifinal, 197.925-197.350. Both will advance to Saturday’s regional final with session one advancing teams Kentucky and Alabama, where they will compete for a berth to nationals in Fort Worth.

The Buckeyes started the day on floor, where an energetic and clean rotation garnered a 49.525, the sixth-best mark in Ohio State program history and its best in the NCAA postseason. Ohio State had been focusing on starting the day with “fire” on floor, head coach Meredith Paulicvic said, and she was pleased to see things get off to a strong start.

The Buckeyes led after one rotation, surpassing the Sooners’ 49.475 on beam despite a 10.0 for Oklahoma’s Ragan Smith on the event.

To Paulicivic, that lead was a sign of belonging and a confidence-builder for her young team. She acknowledges that in 2021—the last time the Buckeyes advanced to the regional final—as well as in previous appearances in the Big Ten championship night session, her squad was starstruck.

“We couldn’t do gymnastics the second day,” she said. While the Buckeyes knew they still had three rotations to go, and anything can happen in gymnastics, they proved that they can compete with Oklahoma, even when it is at home and putting up a perfect score.

Three rotations later, Arkansas had closed a gap behind the Buckeyes, finishing a clean vault rotation and securing a team total of 197.275. Ohio State’s Ella Hodges prepared to mount the beam with a 9.700 to drop and a 197.250 on the board. She needed a 9.725 to tie, or a 9.750 to push the Buckeyes over the edge.

Her routine had a few balance checks and a step on the landing, but she did enough under the pressure. Her 9.800 clinched the finals berth for the Buckeyes.

Ohio State came into this one knowing it would be a close battle with the Razorbacks.

“We’re always looking at scores,” Paulicivic said. Instead of asking her team to ignore the scoreboard and the closely-matched nature of the meet, she reminded them that one meet doesn’t make a season. The focus for this matchup was about coming out and being competitive.

Payton Harris certainly had a competitive day. The freshman tallied the best all-around total of the session, a 39.600, second only to session one’s Raena Worley who bested her by 0.025.

Paulicivic speaks highly of Harris both as a person and athlete and as someone poised to take over a leadership role starting as soon as this season ends. The former five-star recruit is living up to her potential.

“I just think she has the ability to be one of those big dogs,” Paulicivic said.

Harris is already thinking about ways to tweak and rework parts of her program for next year. She and Tory Vetter—who Paulicivic called the “unsung hero” of the season—push each other to be better, especially as Vetter is working to return to more events after an offseason labrum injury.

Harris and Vetter will be joined by some strong incoming freshmen, including one Paulicivic expects to be an immediate all-arounder, and she noted a current freshman is just finding her footing. The quartet should push each other and has Paulicivic optimistic about the future. She’s beginning to fulfill the design for the program that she set in motion when she took the helm five years ago.

While gymnastics is a big part of that plan, so is community involvement.

“We want to be a program that’s well known in the community for doing good community service, being good people, being humble and hungry and hard-working, kind people,” she said.

She has another goal, too: To be a sellout sport. And, maybe someday, when “that team up north”—heated school-wide rival Michigan—comes to town, Paulicivic hopes to compete in The Schottenstein Center, Ohio State’s biggest arena. She got the idea from friend and Kentucky head coach Tim Garrison, whose Wildcats compete in Rupp Arena for big matchups.

Headline meets like this one, with success on the biggest stages against the best opponents, help the Buckeyes believe in the reality of that future.

For now, though, the focus is on Saturday. Ohio State will spend the Friday off day stretching in the arena. They’ll focus on fine-tuning and correcting mistakes. Colby Miller, in particular, is thankful to get another opportunity to show her mettle on bars, after she didn’t quite get a good grip on the bar in a new, stiff pair of grips. The national-quality bar worker pinged off on a toe-handstand, Ohio State’s only fall of the semifinal.

Regardless of what happens on Saturday, some Buckeyes are likely to advance to nationals. Should the team miss qualifying, Harris is in a good spot to qualify either in the all-around or on vault, and Elexis Edwards sits in a strong position on floor.

“Just like Kobe Bryant always says, whether you win a game or lose a game, you get back up tomorrow and then start it all over again,” Paulicivic said. The Buckeyes will start all over again on Saturday, with national aspirations on the line.

Article by Emily Minehart

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