DULUTH, Ga. – It was supposed to be a disadvantage for the No. 4 Alabama gymnastic team to start on the balance beam on the first night of the NCAA Championships. The beam was typically the toughest event of the season for Alabama, and an early struggle could have set an unwanted tone for the rest of the evening.
Not so on Friday.
The Tide got off to a scorching start, scoring a 49.6 on the beam to put to rest any doubts of an off night.
“Coming out on balance beam, the hardest event to start on, we put the pressure on everybody else,” head coach Sarah Patterson said. “That was a huge step for us. That’s the kind of balance beam team we have had – we just haven’t hit on all cylinders yet.”
Alabama finished first in the second session with a team score of 197.675 to secure a berth in the Super Six on Saturday at 4 p.m. ET.
The No. 1 Florida Gators and No. 8 Arkansas Razorbacks advanced from the second session with the Tide, posing team scores of 197.65 and 197.15, respectively. The UCLA Bruins (197.4), Utah Utes (197.2) and Stanford Cardinal (197.125) also advanced from the first session to round off the Super Six.
“We just really enjoyed tonight,” senior Ashley Priess said. “We were so calm as a team and very prepared and relaxed, and we just really enjoyed ourselves and enjoyed the routines. I think that was the difference.”
Alabama’s beam score was the third-best in Alabama history and the highest since 2002. Priess and fellow senior Geralen Stack-Eaton led the way, each posting a 9.95. The Tide did not count a score lower than 9.9.
“We were all just so determined to absolutely hit to the best of our abilities [on balance beam] – because we can, and we’re so capable of it,” Priess said. “We just practiced perfection, and that’s what came out tonight.”
The result sets up a Championship on Saturday that will almost certainly come down to Florida and Alabama. The Tide took the two teams’ regular season meeting in Coleman Coliseum, while the Gators finished on top at the SEC Championships. Alabama edged Florida on Friday, but by the slimmest margin possible – .025.
“This is the last night of our team competition, so there’s no holding back, there’s no saving an ounce of energy for another meet that’s to come,” Priess said. “We have to put it all out tomorrow night – no holding back, no saving anything. It’s just motivating in itself that there’s nothing to save yourself for.”
Alabama followed its beam score with a 49.275 on the floor after a bye. Geralen Stack-Eaton led the Tide with a 9.9, tied for the highest score of the event. The floor judges seemed to be less forgiving, not giving out anything higher than a 9.9 in both sessions.
“The floor scores were exactly like they were in Seattle,” Patterson said. “When I saw that, after we scored so well on beam, I went back in and said, ‘OK, listen here, 9.85 is a good score. Don’t be looking at the scores, think about your performance.’”
On the vault, the Tide posted a team score of 49.4, led by 9.95s from junior Marissa Gutierrez and sophomore Diandra Milliner. Milliner was awarded a 10.0 from one of the four judges, but the highest score is not counted.
Alabama finished on the uneven bars, scoring a 49.4. Stack-Eaton, Priess and junior Ashley Sledge all contributed 9.9s to the effort.
The Tide will start with a bye on Saturday, before moving on to the floor, then vault. After another bye, Alabama will finish on the uneven bars, then balance beam.
Florida will start on vault and end on the floor.
“You still have adrenaline. You just keep up the energy,” Stack-Eaton said. “We have great fans that keep us going and motivated and we just believe in one another.”