At 9:03 p.m. on Thursday, Oregon senior Sarah Moreno stood face-to-face at the center of Matthew Knight Arena with her former coach Felecia Mulkey. Mulkey gave Moreno a smile and a nudge on the left arm before both of them turned around and went their respective ways.
Moreno jogged to the locker room. Mulkey walked with her Baylor team to the nearest exit.
Fifty-seven minutes earlier, Matthew Knight Arena went silent, except for screams of joy from the Baylor sector. The scoreboard flashed a 96.95 Oregon score in the team routine, marking the team’s first home loss in program history. No. 2 Baylor beat No. 1 Oregon, 279.770-278.825.
Across the court, Oregon was somber. But as moments passed, the looks of disappointment changed. Oregon junior Shelby Armstrong was smiling. “This is great,” she said. “We’ve always talked about a meet coming down to the team routine, but we’ve never actually had it.”
Tonight’s meet was a validation of a decision made in early June. Mulkey shocked the acrobatics and tumbling world by leaving four-time National Collegiate Acrobatics and Tumbling Association (NCATA) National Champion Oregon to become the head coach at Baylor.
Leaving the girls at Oregon was the hardest part. But she knew the sport needed to grow.
During the meet, Mulkey was locked in what she calls “business mode.” Like a dam, her emotions were held in check. After the meet, when she saw her former athletes for the first time since she left, the emotions bursted through.
“I knew when I started hugging them that I was going to start crying like a small child,” Mulkey said.
Earlier in the week, Oregon coach Chelsea Shaw said that the sport needed another good program in it. She said Oregon needed friendly camaraderie and a healthy rivalry. Baylor’s come from behind win after trailing, heading into the final event, signified just that.
“This is what the sport is about,” Mulkey said. “You’re going to see more of this and it’s not going to be just Oregon and Baylor.”
Currently, there are 13 teams in the NCATA. Mulkey said by next fall, there will be 17.
Shaw hopes that the loss to Baylor will light a fire under her team similar to the way Oregon bounced back last year on it’s way to a championship. “They’ve come together and gone through a lot of adversity already,” Shaw said. “They’ve never lost at home, so they’ve never known what this felt like.”
Last year, Mulkey was the last to leave the arena. She’d pack her bags, find the same exit she left with her Baylor team tonight and make the short drive home to play with her dogs.
Tonight, Mulkey will take her team to the Sixth Street Grill – one of her favorite places to eat in Eugene along with Cafe Yumm and Voodoo Donuts – and head to the hotel before flying back to Waco, Texas in the morning.
Change. But a required change to make the sport of acrobatics and tumbling grow.
“This is very weird,” Mulkey said as she looked around the arena. “It was like I was just here yesterday.”
Follow Joseph Hoyt on Twitter @JoeJHoyt