On Friday night, the No. 7 Crimson Tide gymnasts entered the hostile (and usually way overscored) Pete Maravich Assembly Center to face the No. 6 LSU Tigers. It is an exceptionally tough venue for Alabama — indeed, for most visitors, with the Tide not posting a win there since 2013.
But, there were a few things working in Alabama’s favor for this trip. The first, is that the two teams were the most evenly matched they’ve been since Coach Patterson’s last championship teams.
The Tigers are another squad breaking in a lot of new faces. This is the most evenly matched the two schools have been in a few years: The Tigers’ high on the year is 197.327 (196.700 average), while the Tide has posted a high of 197.4 (196.667). On paper, the meet is winnable — one of those dog fights we alluded to above. But, LSU has been the beneficiary of notoriously friendly home-scoring in recent years.
The other thing benefiting ‘Bama is that the Crimson Tide have been very consistent this year in their scoring. In the Metroplex Challenge, for instance, “Alabama ended the night with with a 196.575, finishing right at its season-average of 196.658.”
On Friday night, the Tide’s consistency was key — right to down to some gaffes on the dreaded beam — but Alabama was able to improve on its numbers a bit in other rotations, securing a fairly comfortable 196.775-196.425 win in Baton Rouge. The win bolstered the Tide’s season scoring to 196.694, though they are still ranked 7th. The loss dropped the Tigers to 9th.
The Tigers have been thin (and sloppy) on the vault this season, even having to use a walk-on freshman for one of the most technically demanding rotations. While Alabama’s 49.025 routine wasn’t anything spectacular, it was a far sight better than the Tigers’ fairly disastrous 48.750. Combined with small gains in the uneven bars and its steady floor routine (the Tide would claim both rotations), that would prove to be the difference in Alabama’s margin of victory.
Like Alabama’s tandem of Louisa Blanco and Makarri Doggette, LSU was led by their own rising freshman star, Kiya Johnson. Johnson, already having won an SEC Freshman of the Week crown, claimed the All-Around title and the Vault title (and almost certainly another SEC FotW honor). Her exceptionally difficult 10.0 double Yurachenko is already among the SEC’s best, and she was almost flawless posting a 9.95. Not to be outdone, Makarri had a similarly nearly-perfect rotation on the floor, posting a 9.950 of her own. The duel between Johnson and Doggette will be fun to watch for the next few years.
What you see with both of these squads is a bit of the iceberg effect. Some very good younger athletes at the top but not enough all-around depth. Johnson is already that closer for the Tigers, while it is hoped that Lexi Graber can fill that role as a veteran for the Tide. And Friday, Lexi was solid, posting a season-best 39.475. This team’s fortunes for the rest of the season rely on strong weekly outputs from Graber, and the continued development of the youngsters, particularly Doggette.
After spending three of the last four weeks on the road, and hosting No. 1 Oklahoma, the road for the Tide gets a little more forgiving. Alabama is back in Coleman this Friday for the annual Power of Pink meet. Their opponents the next two home meets will be some teams that are ranked, though they are illusory rankings. The Tide hosts the No. 21 Missouri Tigers this Friday, and the No. 15 Arkansas Razorbacks the week after. Both are a clear part of the SEC’s lower-middle class. Jordyn Weiber may get it turned around in Fayetteville, but she simply does not have the athletes yet. Despite that, she has incorporated a high degree of difficulty in her routines: the thinking being, the talent has to meet her expectations, not vice-versa. Missouri, meanwhile, is scoring a full point below the Tide on the season and has only hit the 196+ mark once. But, like the Tide they are consistent. Their consistency simply hasn’t been as good as Alabama’s though.
Duckworth and Co. should be able to pick up two more wins by Valentine’s Day before traveling to the O Dome to face the No. 2 Florida Gators. But, for this week, let’s just enjoy the first victory of the season, and not just a moral one.