Like many college students, the Crimson Tide gymnasts headed to Florida this week, but not for Spring Break—far from it. The sixth ranked Tide is competing in what amounts to, talent-wise, a mini-national championship Saturday for the 2017 SEC title. The eight teams fighting to be the conference best represent the most competitive group assembled under one roof, in this case Veteran’s Memorial Arena in Jacksonville, outside of next month’s Super Six National Championship. There is absolutely no margin for error. (readers new to gymnastics can click on hyperlinks in this article to see the Olympic like quality of the sport)
The field includes #2 LSU, #4 Florida, #6 Alabama, #8 Georgia, #12 Kentucky, #14 Missouri, #21 Auburn, and #26 Arkansas. Against this group in regular season the Tide limped to a 4-3 record. That’s not to say the third seeded Alabama ladies can’t win, but any misstep and they could find themselves finishing as low as fifth. The two judge format that seemed to favor home teams in regular season is out; this weekend a four judge panel will be watching with a more critical eye for the slightest imperfections: separated legs on vault, missed handstands on bars, under-rotations on floor, not just a step or two on landings. The high score and low scores will be dropped, the other two scores averaged.
Alabama coach Dana Duckworth brings the SEC’s top ranked all-around gymnast in Kiana Winston. The electric junior is ranked fourth nationally ahead even of 2016 Olympian Madison Kocian who competes for UCLA. Winston is capable of taking conference titles on beam, floor, and in all-around. (that means she will compete in all four events) Nickie Guerrero is tied for third nationally on beam where she does two back layout flips in a row. But Saturday will come down to how well the rest of the team performs. Seniors Aja Sims and defending national champion on vault Katie Bailey, along with freshmen Wynter Childers and former US National Team member Maddie Desch are more than capable of getting big scores, but Bama will have to compete at a higher level than it has all year to take the title.
Don’t feed the hungry tigers, alligators, bulldogs, or wildcats
LSU is coming off the SEC’s first ever regular season title but has not won at the conference championship since 1981. This looks to be the year for the Lady Tigers. This team, led by Ashleigh Gnat (a firecracker on vault), Sarah Finnegan, Miya Hambrick, Erin Macadaeg, and Lexie Priessman have been on a mission all season to give their head coach of 40 years, D-D Breaux, her second SEC championship title and her first national title. The Tigers have performed high degree of difficulty routines at a high level all season.
Florida is coming off regular season losses to LSU and Alabama but has the talent not only to win in Jacksonville, but to also take the national title next month in St. Louis. Alex McMurtry who does a triple twisting back flip layout, Alicia Boren, Kennedy Baker, and Rachel Slocum are gymnasts to watch Saturday under the guidance of their uncharacteristically (for gymnastics anyway) calm head coach Jenny Rowland.
The 4th-seed Georgia GymDogs are surging, coming off a home win over #5 Utah last week. (while Bama struggled at home to put away #27 Iowa State) Head Coach Danna Durante has her team peaking at the right time. Even five seed Kentucky is capable of a top three finish led by Alex Hyland and fabulous freshman Mollie Korth. The Wildcats are a team on the way up. In other words, the SEC, as in softball, is only getting tougher.
History favors Tide as the third seed even if rotation doesn’t
The meet consists of two sessions: at 1pm CT Kentucky, Missouri, Auburn, and Arkansas compete. Then at 5pm CT it’s the ‘light’ heavyweights LSU, Florida, Alabama, and Georgia. As the third seed in the evening session Alabama opens on its two strongest events, beam and floor, followed by vault, and ends with its nemesis uneven bars. This is the fourth year the SEC Championships have played out this way for Alabama. The Tide overcame and won it all in 2014 and 2015 before finishing second in 2016. So, "Don’t despair!” I keep telling myself. Realistically, Bama somehow has to build a lead heading into the final rotation and pray they can hang onto it.
Easy viewing courtesy ESPN and SEC Network, (link here)
The opening session can be seen on ESPNU at 1pm, and the ‘Alabama’ session gets underway at 5pm on the SEC Network. For the first time, fans can also choose to follow their individual team online at SEC Network Plus rather than watch the general telecast. Open the Watch ESPN app, then at the bottom of the screen click on Sport, then scroll down to Gymnastics, and click on SEC Gymnastics Championship Alabama. For fans who tried to watch like this last year, cameras isolated each apparatus which meant as the Tide moved say to floor viewers had to switch channels. That faulty system has been upgraded this year. The SEC suggests having ESPNU or SEC Network on your tv, (of course they do!) and then watch your favorite team on your computer, iPad, or phone so you get overall commentary but can see each individual performance. Overall scores will be on the screen throughout. RTR!