Freshmen lead ’Bama into Regionals
Crimson Tide’s eight freshmen set up for another regional title
Alabama’s women’s gymnastics program is no stranger to success. It has won an NCAA-record 25 regional titles and advanced to the NCAA Championships for 28 consecutive years.
Last year’s Tide team finished third at NCAA Championships, but lost four senior All-Americans to graduation, while a fifth -- Ashley Priess -- has sat out the year due to injury. Alabama head coach Sarah Patterson had eight freshmen come in to replace those lost routines, but she knew they would not be ready to compete as a national contender overnight.
“It’s a learning process over the year,” Patterson said. “I knew when we first started practice in the fall it was going to be a process over the entire year that would help this team. Our freshmen class has been amazing, not only in the productivity they’ve had but also how consistent they are.”
During the regular season, five different freshmen performed 92 total routines, making up 38 percent of the Tide’s lineup. In addition, freshmen Sarah DeMeo and Kim Jacob tied for second on the balance beam with scores of 9.90, while classmate Diandra Milliner finished eighth in the all-around to propel the Tide to the 2011 Southeastern Conference Championship. That sensational rookie trio, and freshman Jordan Moore, have combined for 15 event titles this season.
“We all knew we were going to have to step in and be a part of the team because so many great routines were lost last year,” Jacob said. “The coaching staff and the rest of the team always treated us like a big part of the team, and I think we’ve handled ourselves really well in competition.”
But it took a few weeks of competition for the Tide freshmen to really start clicking with the rest of the lineup, and adjusting to the team aspect of the sport after competing for so long as elite club gymnasts, which has more of an individual focus. It was a tough loss at No. 1 Florida on Feb. 4 that rattled everyone’s cage.
“It reiterated what we’ve been telling them -- if we focus on ourselves as a team and focus on bettering the person next to us individually, that’s what can happen,” said Patterson. “We had one really bad meet this year and it was because we got caught up in going against a No. 1 team. We focused on if they were a better team than us -- the external things, rather than the internal things.”
Since the meet against the Gators, Alabama has hit the 197 mark in four of its last five meets, and scored a 196.950 versus LSU to conclude the regular season.
“After the Florida loss, we definitely kicked it into gear,” Jacob said. “We had a rough meet in Gainesville and knew exactly what we needed to work on to fix that. We knew it was time to fix our performances and gain momentum from then until the postseason.”
“We took the opportunity to learn from it and we took it to heart and listened to the coaches,” DeMeo said. “We really all listened and now we are really united going into the postseason.”
While Alabama’s freshmen gymnasts have clearly transformed into a strong unit heading into the NCAA Tuscaloosa Regional on April 2, each of the rookies have made key individual contributions.
Milliner, DeMeo and Jacob comprised half of the Freshman All-SEC Team, along with garnering Second Team All-SEC honors. Milliner enters the NCAA postseason ranked third in the nation on vault (9.920 RQS), and 12th on the floor exercise (9.885 RQS), and leads the group with seven individual titles.
“Diandra was a sparkplug for us because she showed up on Dec. 26 after graduating high school in the fall, and immediately jumped into our lineup,” Patterson. “She was a breath of fresh air for a team that was trying to find itself. When she walked in the gym and performed at this level, she gave the team a little bit of fire.”
DeMeo, who closed out the regular season with a career-high score of 39.450 to win the all-around against LSU, has won four titles on balance beam this year, and ranks seventh on the apparatus entering regionals.
“Sarah has mentally developed the most over the season,” Patterson. “She’s a great balance beam worker, but good on all four events and moved herself into the all-around competition.”
Jacob has served as the rock of the group, providing a shoulder for her classmates to lean upon, and currently ranks 17th on the beam with a 9.865 RQS.
“[Her classmates] called her ‘Google’, because if they ever needed to know something, they went to Kim and she directed them all,” Patterson said. “She’s that way in competition -- there are no highs and no lows. She is the steadiest competitor, and one of the best I’ve worked with maintaining a calm consistency.”
Although most of this year’s freshmen-laden squad has never participated in an NCAA event, the youthful group is undoubtedly ready for the challenge of the postseason.
“There are so many freshmen that there is a new excitement, and it brings the team a lot of energy because we’ve never done any of this before,” Milliner said. “There’s not as much pressure on us because we don’t have X number of returning champions that have the expectation of winning.”
Alabama, ranked second nationally behind No. 1 Florida, will host the NCAA Tuscaloosa Regional at 7 p.m. ET April 2. The top-seeded Crimson Tide will play host to No. 2 seed Penn State, No. 3 seed Illinois, Auburn, Central Michigan and Kentucky.