Tide looks to defend SEC title

Tide looks to defend SEC title

Jason Galloway

After retaining the No. 1 spot in the polls for the fourth straight week and the seventh this season, the Alabama gymnastics team heads into the Southeastern Conference Championships in Jacksonville, Fla., this weekend as a favorite to defend its 2009 title.

“We haven’t even talked about defending anything,” said Alabama head coach Sarah Patterson. “[Our team] has that championship experience, they all know what it’s like, and all of them were there when we stood on the football field [in Bryant-Denny Stadium] to get our SEC Championship rings.

“Everybody wants that experience again, so I don’t even think you have to talk about it.”

The Crimson Tide came into last year’s SEC Championships chasing the four-time defending national champion Georgia. Now that Alabama is the defending champion and the team to beat in the country, much less the conference, the Tide feels more pressure than last year to come through.

“I think there’s a lot of pressure on us, but I think that we’re at a place where we’re smart enough and were determined enough to not let that bother us,” said junior Kayla Hoffman. “We just need to keep everything in perspective and know that we need to do what we’ve been doing all season long and not put any extra pressure on ourselves.”

Considering the strength of the SEC, this weekend could nearly serve as the national championships. Five of last year’s Super Six teams were from the seven-team SEC, with Utah standing as the only team to compete on the final day of competition.

“I do think it’s why, at the end of the season, the [SEC] teams will do so well in NCAA postseason,” Patterson said. “I think it’s because we beat up on each other all year long. You go into every meet [in the SEC] knowing that if you make a mistake, if you have an off event, you’re going to lose.”

“If we do well this weekend, that can only prepare us for nationals,” said senior Ricki Lebegern.

One difference from last year’s Alabama squad is that the Tide has remained relatively healthy all season. Alabama struggled with injuries all last season, causing more inconsistent scoring throughout the regular season.

“I feel like this team has been good just all year long,” Patterson said. “Other than one or two bad events… we really haven’t had a bad day. We’re as healthy as we’re going to be.”

Alabama is coming off a season-high 197.575 against Michigan in its season finale last week. Although the Tide’s consistency has given it the nation’s No. 1 ranking, Lebegern said Alabama’s best meets are yet to come.

“I think we’ve had great meets, we just haven’t put it all together,” Lebegern said. “We’ve had an event here or there that’s been great, but we haven’t had any [meets] where all four [events] have been amazing. We still have room to improve, and I think right now, with three meets left, it’s the right time to peak.”

The SEC Championships will begin Saturday at 3 p.m.