Schreiber’s impressive SEC Championship performance propels Missouri to program-best sixth place

Taking a look ahead at postseason and beyond for young Tigers crew.

No. 23 Missouri gymnastics started the SEC championships in last place.

A National Qualifying Score (NQS) of 196.444 earned Missouri the eighth seed in the SEC, despite ranking top-25 nationally. After Georgia missed the competition following positive COVID tests and Arkansas fell apart late in the second session, the Tigers finished the tournament in sixth place, good for the best finish in program history.

“I mean, we only had two kids there that had ever competed in SEC Championships before,” Missouri coach Shannon Welker said. “Considering we were pretty inexperienced at an event like this, I think we did very well.”

Missouri started on the floor, which is unusual, but the change in rotation order didn’t seem to bother the Tigers. Each of the first five competitors hit solid routines and Welker elected to pass on his sixth spot reserved for freshman Sydney Schaffer.

Although tough for Schaffer, Welker’s move had the team’s performance in mind — just moments later, the freshman led off the vault with her second try at the event all season. Fresh for her first event of the day, Schaffer scored 9.775 and set her career high on the vault.

“Yeah, she was a little bit upset,” Welker said. “We talked right afterwards, and that was my plan if we went and hit our first five solid. I wanted to make sure she was fresh right there, so I think what we did strategically worked out in our favor.”

After scoring 48.875 on the vault, Missouri picked up where it left off on the bars. Senior Chelsey Christensen, who struggled most of the regular season, built momentum with a 9.7, her best score since January. But despite some encouraging signs, Missouri entered the last rotation behind fifth and sixth-seeded Auburn and Kentucky.

On the Tigers’ final event of the day, sophomore Sienna Schreiber produced the team’s highest score ever at the SEC championships. She picked up a 9.925 on the beam, which replaced senior Gabrielle Gottula’s 9.725. That fraction of a point brought the Tigers’ team total up to 196.125 — also a program record.

The all-time performance from Schreiber put her in first place at the end of the first session. More impressively, even after the top four seeded teams finished competing, the sophomore’s first time at the SEC Championships earned a fifth-place finish on the beam. Overall, Schreiber’s incredible day demonstrated where she and the rest of Missouri’s young core are heading in the future.

“I’m really proud of them, they’ve done a really nice job,” Welker said. “We’re a little short on some depth at senior, so we had to rely on a lot of freshmen and sophomores and we had a couple of injuries, but they really are doing well.”

Despite her sophomore status, the Tigers’ lack of experience coupled with a conference All-Freshman 2020 season plugged Schreiber into one of the leadership roles for Missouri this year. At the same time, last year’s postseason cancellations gave Schreiber the chance to share her first “SEC’s” with this year’s youngsters.

“Coming in as a sophomore has helped me lead and relate to the freshmen a little bit more than some of the seniors,” Schreiber said. “We’re not so different.”

The aforementioned young core undoubtedly starts with Schreiber, but it lists more than just the star all-arounder — freshman Amaya Marshall also took on all four events for Missouri on Saturday, but ultimately finished 14th in the all-around competition.

“Amaya has really stepped up this year,” Schreiber said. “I do wish she had a lot more self confidence because she’s amazing. I saw that in myself last year too.”

Countless other young Tigers hope to emulate Schreiber’s quick development –– Schaffer played a big part in the Tigers lineups towards the end of the season, and sophomores Hollyn Patrick and Adalayna Hufendiek are set to compete in multiple events for the Tigers next season.

This year, Hufendiek stepped into the bars lineup in competition, but she also warmed up as an alternate for vault — as did Patrick on the beam and freshman Kalise Newson on bars. Combine that simulated experience with exhibition tries in the last few regular-season meets, and Missouri’s plan for the future becomes clear.

“They’re really close to getting in the lineup, being able to come to the meet and basically be a competitor until we salute is really good for them,” Schreiber said. “They’re fully capable and I think they just have to go after it.”

While they might not headline the lineup now, Missouri’s underclassmen fit perfectly into the blueprint for the program’s next few years, and Welker is well prepared to fill the holes left by seniors Gabrielle Gottula and Chelsey Christensen after this season.

“I think we’re definitely moving in a good direction,” Welker said. “We’ve just had some injuries this year that have limited us in some of the firepower we can put on the floor.”

The firepower Welker mentions comes in the form of Helen Hu and Jena Swanson. In 2020, Hu earned All-SEC team honors and tacked on the program’s first SEC specialist of the year award — as a freshman. Swanson’s freshman campaign came to an early halt following a tweaked knee in February, and she’ll sit out the postseason to recover fully for 2022.

While Swanson missed out on 2021 All-Freshman team honors, Marshall did not. The rookie became the seventh Tiger to do so in the SEC and goes back-to-back with Schreiber.

At the start of the season, Marshall wasn’t immediately an all-around competitor. In mid-February, she finally joined the beam lineup that now serves as Missouri’s calling card. Ranked last in the SEC on vault, bars and floor, the Tigers have the fourth-best NQS on beam in their conference and the tenth-best nationally.

Although the young talent continues to shine in competition, Welker pointed to the prowess of beam coach Casey Jo MacPherson in keeping the lineup confident and prepared.

“Casey Jo does a great job over there and has really got those young ladies in a good spot,” Welker said. “It’s been a lot of the young kiddos over there doing a great job, and she connects well with them.”

In the past two meets, MacPherson’s beam event impressed collectively, but Schreiber outshone it individually. Her 9.975 against LSU and impressive finish at the SEC’s sealed All-SEC honors for 2021.

Only former Missouri gymnasts Morgan Porter, Becca Schugel and Britney Ward had ever boasted both All-Freshman and All-SEC seasons for the program, and Schreiber already managed the feat as a sophomore. On the beam event specifically, she also received the program’s fourth-ever All-American-second-team nod — each of the first three coming from Ward.

Both of Missouri’s all-arounders joined elite company after the strongest SEC Championships performance in program history, already marking the season as a remarkable step in the right direction. But the Tigers aren’t quite done yet –– as one of the nation’s 36 strongest teams, they’ll move on to NCAA Regionals in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, on April 2.

If they can put it all together, Missouri could be this year’s postseason dark horse, but this is for sure: The Tigers are becoming dangerous, and they’re ahead of schedule.

Edited by Kyle Pinnell | kpinnell@themaneater.com

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