If there was a recurring motif in too many of Alabama’s athletic clubs this year, it was this: Good seasons that fell short, conference rivals getting the edge far too often, and teams that are clearly in the upper echelon of their sport, yet for whom the pinnacle often seems to be a mile away.
Such was the case with the Alabama Gymnastics program in 2023.
The year began with the Tide breaking in practically an entirely new staff, little offseason buzz from Alabama’s woeful marketing team, and with new coach Ashley Priess Johnston’s emergent schedule disrupted by way of maternity leave.
Almost out of the blue, the season came upon us with no fanfare, little promotion — even little celebration of the Tide picking up the nation’s No. 1 overall recruit for 2023-2024. I don’t recall the last time I’ve seen so little buzz around a veteran-laden team with a returning national champion.
But, arrive it did...and we came into the new year with Luisa in a boot and Makarri Doggette absent for injury. The two greatest impact athletes were either banged up or on the PUP list. It showed too. The Tide was through a third of the schedule before it even cracked 197, culminating in a ghastly home blowout loss to Florida in the Power of Pink meet.
There were some bright spots even in that darkness though. The emergence of phenomenal freshman all-arounder Gabby Gladieux among them. Also a pleasant surprise was the improvement on floor that Sr. Mati Waligora made, as well as Jr. Lilly Hudson (BB) and Ella Burgess (FX) rounding into form as impact specialists. Their development helped the Tide flourish. For the rest of the year, the Tide hit 197+ in all-but one meet; including picking up a 198 and flirting with it on three other occasions.
Indeed, Alabama improved its per-meet scoring over 2022.
But this is where we must sadly depart from the good news. Not all 197+ is created equally. And despite improved overall scoring, the Tide was a significantly weaker team, whose performance actually slipped in all-but one event over the 2022 squad, and in some cases, it even plummeted off a cliff.
Floor (FX): 7th to 6th
Balance Beam (BB): 5th to 8th
Uneven Bars (UB): 3rd to 12th
Vault (VT): 5th to 7th
Regression, in a word.
And there simply was no reason for it other than psychical. This is a veteran team with three seniors, a defending national champion, two juniors, and an emergent star.
There are always going to be coaching adjustments made, and these were Dana’s girls — brought in by, developed by, and a relationship established with the old crew. Given that so much of gymnastics is about camaraderie over internal competition, and given Coach Duckworth’s abrupt (even puzzling) departure, it’s easy to see how that could have affected the psyche of the squad as well.
Coach Johnston does not cut nearly the affable figure that Dana did, the latter seeming to be inclined to be equal-part Cool Instagram Auntie and equal-part Head Coach. But APJ is very much in control, and is Coach every moment she’s on the mats. It shows too. That stylistic difference could also play a role.
This was by all accounts Year 1 for the new staff. With injuries and adjustments, it’s functionally a Year Zero.
Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of a season that ended with another regional appearance and another All-American on the history books, is that Alabama’s highlights weren’t wins at all. They were moral victories. Alabama’s best meets — indeed, their season highlights — were almost. Luisa almost won a national title on UB with an insane 9.950 routine; she finished second. Alabama almost upended LSU; it settled for a .05 point home loss. Alabama almost sent the overscored Auburn Tigers and Sunisa Lee home in tears; it lost by .15. Alabama almost won an SEC title; it settled for a second-place finish (Okay, Alabama did not almost win that one. Florida was just a little better at every position, in every rotation. But you get the point). Alabama almost advanced to the NCAA Finals — it settled for a first round exit.
And these almost moments weren’t the product of the Tide having an off-night either. In most cases, they were absolutely rock solid. When Alabama had an off-night, it showed (Mizzou ring a bell?). This was Alabama competing as hard as they could and not being able to get it done. This squad isn’t there. It’s almost there. But, long-time fans do grow impatient, mainly because Alabama has been almost there for a solid decade now.
Worse, Alabama has fallen firmly in the middle of the pack in our sport in the SEC; a dynasty that Sarah and Dave Patterson built, in a sport that they popularized in the league. Yet, the Tide are now routinely finishing .500 on the season, dropping meets to the likes of Missouri, Kentucky, fly-by-night-and-overscored Auburn — and even falling into what seems to be a permanent third-place status behind Florida and LSU.
Alabama is at the top of the mountain, but that summit where we can plant the Script A flag has never seemed farther out of reach.
Next year, the Tide has a nice core to work around, and could even have several returning super seniors. So, I’m not sounding the despondency bell just yet, and neither should you. There were some good things to take away from the year, competitiveness in their biggest meets was one of the main ones. This is a team that threw serious haymakers when it most counted. It’s a matter of getting over that hump. And, while Alabama is not there, there’s no reason to think it can’t be again one day, and sooner rather than later.
It just stings right now.
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