Undefeateds to clash in Gainesville

Jason Galloway

Less than halfway through the season, the Alabama gymnastics team is already preparing itself for the end of it.

A week after scoring a season-high in a championship setting, the undefeated Crimson Tide will take on the team that will likely be its biggest competition at nationals this season, No. 1 Florida.

“I knew they were going to be one of the most talented teams [this season],” said Alabama head coach Sarah Patterson, who voted the Gators No. 1 in her preseason coaches’ poll ballot. “I felt like, with the talent they have … that’s going to be our measuring stick. So, to take our young team down there, let’s see exactly how close we are.”

Last week, Alabama’s 196.825 was its highest score of the season by half a point. The Tide performed on a platform, which is unusual unless the team is competing in the SEC Championship or NCAA Championship. Alabama also competed against three other schools in Fort Worth, Texas, last weekend, another postseason similarity.

“For our team, that was a perfect experience,” Patterson said. “All week, we just used it as a preparation for nationals. We stepped out of our dual-meet setting and everything we did was everything we’re going to do for championship season.”

Alabama will return to its regular dual-meet setting in Gainesville, Fla., tonight, but the Tide will familiarize itself with the team to beat in the country this season. Not only are the Gators ranked No. 1 in the country, they are ranked No. 1 on three of four events (vault, uneven bars and floor exercise) and third on the balance beam.

Florida, who won the SEC Championship last year, is led by two underclassmen ranked in the top five in the all-around. Sophomore All-American Ashanée Dickerson is ranked fifth, and freshman Alaina Johnson is fourth.

Johnson has emerged as the best freshman in the country this season by winning the SEC Freshman Gymnast of the Week three times. She also posted an exceptional 39.6 in the all-around last week, higher than any all-around score any Alabama gymnast has scored this season.

“It puts a lot of pressure on the team because [Florida is] No. 1,” freshman Sarah DeMeo said. “They’re definitely at their peak right now. I wouldn’t say the mindset is trying to beat them, but the mindset [is] doing the best that we can. We just want to keep improving and beat our own score every week.”

Alabama has been beating its own score since the second meet of the season. The Tide is currently ranked No. 6 in the country and has two gymnasts – Geralen Stack-Eaton (No. 2) and Kayla Hoffman (No. 8) – ranked in the top 10 in the all around. The team also has eight routines that are ranked in the top 20 on individual events.

“Our team has a lot of potential, too,” said Stack-Eaton, who scored a 39.475 in her first all-around performance last week. “To get there, we just have to keep working on it. We keep progressing each meet, and I think a lot of people can see our potential as well.

“This is just another step forward towards the postseason. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.”

Tonight’s meet against the Gators begins at 6 p.m. CST in Gainesville, Fla. Fans and students will be able to follow all the action online at RollTide.com and GymTide.com as well as on the radio at WVUA-FM 90.7.