The two-time defending national champion Alabama gymnastics team won its NCAA-best 28th NCAA Regional title to advance to the NCAA Championships for the 31st year in a row in front of a boisterous crowd of 7,758 in Coleman Coliseum Saturday night.
With the top two teams in each of the six regionals across the country advancing to the NCAA Championships, Alabama scored a 197.400 to win its ninth consecutive regional followed by Utah in second with a 196.400. Iowa State was third with a 195.400, while Denver (195.275), BYU 194.475 and Kent State (193.500) rounded out the team scoring.
Alabama started things off with a 49.350 on the vault paced by sophomore Kayla Williams' winning 9.925 from the leadoff spot and Priess' 9.9. After its first bye of the evening, the Tide moved to the uneven bars where it used a trio of 9.9s from junior Kim Jacob, sophomore Kaitlyn Clark and Priess, who all tied for first place, to score a 49.375.
Jacob tied her career-best on the balance beam, scoring a 9.95 to lead Alabama to a 49.200. During the beam rotation, the Tide rebounded from a fall in the second spot and a large wobble in the third position to close with a 9.85 from junior Sarah DeMeo, Jacob's 9.95 and a 9.9 from Priess.
The Tide closed out the night with a string of 9.9 or better routines on the floor exercise, scoring a 49.475, led by junior Diandra Milliner's winning 9.925 and 9.9s from freshman Lauren Beers, DeMeo and Priess.
The other teams slated to advance from the other regionals across the country are Florida, Oklahoma, Georgia, LSU, UCLA, Michigan, Minnesota, Stanford, Utah, Arkansas and Illinois.
The 2013 NCAA Championships will be held in Los Angeles, Calif., on UCLA's campus. With Alabama and Utah both advancing to the NCAA Championships, the two longest active streaks in the history of collegiate gymnastics remain intact. Alabama has now qualified for the last 31 NCAA Championships in a row while Utah has qualified for all 32.
I had promised a final spotlight piece on our final senior, Ashley Sledge. The department didn't release the info until after I had finished my piece last week and by the time they released it, it was just too late to go back and add it to last week's piece. Here I will make sure Ashley gets her due.
Everyone who has seen an Alabama gymnastics meet over the past three-plus years waits for this moment. Whether she is first in the lineup or toward the end, when Ashley Sledge steps up for her uneven bars routine, all eyes focus on her. More specifically everyone in the crowd is sitting on the edge of their seat, waiting for the end of her routine when she cranks around the high bar once, then twice and then lets go, soaring into the air, flipping twice in the laid out position before knifing in for the landing.
The official name for her release move is a double layout, but when Sledge does it, it seems a lot more like flying.
"The funny thing about that is that it took me like six years to learn that dismount," Sledge said. "I could not get it - I just could not do it. I didn't do that dismount until the year before I got to college and I had only competed it once because I tore my Achilles the first meet I competed it (on a different event). But I love that dismount. That's probably the skill that I'll miss the most when I finish gymnastics, just being able to crank my giants and fly."
"I really think about the mechanics when I'm doing it because I try to keep it really rhythmic," Sledge said. "For me, it goes down, up, down, up, down, up, stick - that's what I say when I do it. I can definitely tell when it's on -- I don't like for it to spin too fast and I don't like it when it goes too high -- there's definitely a sweet spot and I know exactly when I'm in it."
"I'll miss the sense of team - I couldn't be an individual gymnast anymore," Sledge said. "Individual accomplishment isn't important to me anymore; I'm not in this for me. It's not what drives me. Just knowing that 16 other people are counting on me to do my job, that's what gets me thinking, `Okay, let's do this, let's get this.'"
Sledge grew up around Alabama gymnastics, living in Birmingham until she was 10 years old and going to the Alabama Gymnastics Camp each summer. So the opportunity to be a member of the Crimson Tide legacy of champions is something she looked forward to since she was young. It's one of the reasons that what she and her teammates have been able to accomplish means so much to the two-time All-American.
"It hasn't hit me because I haven't walked (in the graduation ceremony) yet," Sledge said. "I'm still taking classes, so nothing's really changed. But I have my undergrad degree so that's pretty awesome and my parents and my family are really proud."
Her Crimson Tide journey has made a tremendous difference for Sledge, helping her undergo that metamorphosis between child and adult.
"Just knowing me when I was younger, when I was 17 coming to college and how much I've changed to reach the level of maturity that I have now. I've gotten my degree and am about to finish up a great career here. It's a proud feeling for me. It's a proud feeling for my family and friends."
"I'm at my best, and I think as a team we're at our best when we go into a meet thinking `You've done this a million times, so do your thing and let everyone get their popcorn ready,'" Sledge said. "That's what's best for me ¬- that's what's best for the team."
Now the team is heading to the campus of UCLA for the NCAA National Championships. Coach Patterson is excited because we have the third seed and will be in the evening meet which has a stronger crowd presence and electric atmosphere. Even though there won't be as many fans cheering for Alabama there is a significant difference between the afternoon and the evening meets in the Nationals.
The afternoon session features No. 1 Florida, No. 4 Georgia, No. 5 LSU, No. 8 Minnesota, No. 9 Stanford and No. 12 Illinois. Overall, Alabama has faced seven of the 11 teams at these championships.
The seeding is determined by national qualifying score (NQS) which takes each of the 12 teams' regional championship score and regional qualifying score (RQS) and adds them together. Alabama was ranked third going into regionals with a 197.415 RQS to which it added a 197.400 regional championship score to come up with a 394.815 NQS.
The Tide will start its semifinal session on a bye before opening competition on the uneven bars, followed by the balance beam. Following another bye, Alabama will finish off the night on the floor exercise and vault.
Each of the 12 teams competing on Friday will have an all-arounder from a team that didn't advance rotating with them. Washington's Lauren Rogers will rotate with the Tide.
Alabama won its NCAA-best 28th regional title to advance to Los Angeles. The Tide is one of just two teams in collegiate gymnastics history that has advanced to the NCAA Championships final site 31 or more years in a row.
"I can tell you without a doubt that even after advancing to the national championships 31 years in a row, that feeling of excitement and pride never grows old," Patterson said.
The top-three teams from each semifinal session will advance to the NCAA Super Six Team Finals which will get underway Saturday, April 20 at 4 p.m. PT in Pauley Pavilion.