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Alabama Gymnastics 2021 Year-in-Review: Consistency and getting over the hump

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Arguably Dana Duckworth’s best year on campus showed the good and bad of Alabama gymnastics

2021 NCAA Division I Women’s Gymnastics Championship
Beam national champion, Luisa Blanco
Photo by C. Morgan Engel/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

If there were one word you could use to describe the 2021 Alabama Crimson Tide Gymnastics squad, it is consistent. Although, you could also use the word “almost” and be as justified.

For the fourth straight season, Alabama improved its average scoring across the board. But, notably absent from that trend were the slow starts and aberrant low scoring that have plagued the program of late. Those are definite pluses. In 2021, the Crimson Tide could not have been a steadier program: It finished 7th in the nation overall (197.053); its adjusted scoring was 7th (197.538); and it had the 7th-highest team score (197.875). That trend was seen its individual apparatus scoring too...mainly. Alabama was 5th in Vault; 6th in Beam; 8th in Bars.

That represented an improvement on Vault and Beam over last season’s results. But ‘Bama’s Floor scores fell off a cliff. The Crimson Tide went from 6th overall to 13th in the nation (and we will have more to say on this later).

Despite the lackluster floor scoring, Alabama’s overall consistency was good enough to get it done in key moments. The Tide knocked off No. 3 LSU in Baton Rouge; it helped the Tide secure its first SEC Championship in five years; it hosted yet another Regional and advanced to Nationals again; it went toe-to-toe with Oklahoma twice; it was beating No. 2 Florida going into its final rotation at home; it almost advanced to the National Finals.

There were many reasons for the Tide’s solid performance.

The first has to be the youth movement. The development of dynamic sophomores Luisa Blanco and Makarri Doggette made this team what it was. So too did Sophomore Mati Waligora’s addition to the all-around rotation (well, almost all-around. After missing last year with injury, the buoyant Sophomore competed in three of four events). 2021 also saw the surprising emergence of freshman Shania Adams, as well as outstanding performances by Nebraska transfer Kaylee Quinn, the latter of whom entered the rotation as an All-Arounder. The new faces and underclassmen carried the team, though Shallon Olsen and Lexi Graber did have big moments of their own. But, of the six All-SEC Performers for the Crimson Tide, four were underclassmen or new athletes. And not only did the Tide have half a dozen all-SEC gymnasts, it also had the 2021 SEC Gymnast of the Year, Luisa Blanco, who claimed 18 all-around or individual crowns this season, and staked out a hard-won National Championship on Beam.

Since this team was recruited and coached solely by Dana Duckworth, and it does not have a single athlete signed or coached by the Pattersons, I would argue that this is perhaps her best overall work in Tuscaloosa to-date, though the finish may not be as high as in past seasons. The 2021 season was a season that bolstered the case for and against Coach Dana Duckworth, in all honesty: Very good, almost great. Talented athletes capable of great performances, yet let down by bad floor routines and the small details.

Solid, in a word.

The youth movement, led by Makarri Doggette and Luisa Blanco, have been the key to this team’s success

And that’s the problem for many; despite another very good season, it was not great — at least by Alabama standards. It was almost great.

That damning word works just as well to describe the Crimson Tide program as does the word “consistent.”

When Alabama went toe-to-toe with legitimate national title contenders (and Alabama simply is not one any longer), it almost secured wins. But there are simply too many small errors that have come to define Tide performances in the last few years: leg separation, form breaks, balance errors and hand checks, and above all uninspired Floor routines.

It is baffling too. For the better part of three decades, we have seen Alabama consistently post outstanding marks on the Floor exercise. But either Alabama is simply no longer signing dominant floor performers, or Coach Duckworth’s choreography has not allowed the talent on the team to shine. It is almost certainly the latter.

In the past 25 years, only twice has Alabama not finished in the Top 10 on the Floor. Two of those have occurred in the last four years, and this season’s 13th place finish was the worst in the 30 years for which we have data. In fact, since Coach Patterson’s recruits graduated, not once has Alabama finished inside the Top 5 on the Floor Exercise. And, going into what will be her 8th season next winter, it is simply impossible to put French Tips on this particular hangnail: the staff is not getting it done coaching this event. Until they do, we will continue to see unimaginative, uninspired routines in an event where Alabama should be making up ground and solidifying leads, not blowing them down the stretch. Those are the things that separate very good seasons from great ones; from a team that can win an SEC title from one that can legitimately win a national title.

Such criticism is not doom and gloom. There are no fatal flaws here, and Alabama clearly is still among the nation’s top programs. There are elite individual perfomers on the mats, so the talent is there. But, until there is far more attention given to the small things (and in gymnastics, it’s all about those small things), and until there is far better and more professional floor choreography, Alabama will almost be a national championship contender...just as it has been for several years.

Whether you want to take that almost-decade long consistency an indictment or a defense is up to you. But almost being in the national title discussion certainly feels perverse for fans of one of the sport’s storied blueblood programs.

Poll

Grade the 2021 Alabama Gymnastics season

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  • 4%
    A+
    (8 votes)
  • 40%
    A/A-
    (70 votes)
  • 41%
    B+
    (71 votes)
  • 11%
    B/B-
    (20 votes)
  • 1%
    C or lower (and explain yourself below)
    (2 votes)
171 votes total Vote Now