March 4, 2010

 

By Amy Farnum
NCAA.com


When you first glance at Morgan Dennis’ long list of accomplishments, it certainly is not apparent that the University of Alabama gymnast never set out to be a collegiate all-arounder.  In fact, she needed a little convincing.

Although Dennis won the all-around at the 2006 New Jersey Level 10 State Championships while competing in club gymnastics, she considered herself as a vaulter and tumbler, thinking her skills were lacking in the other two events.

“Bars and beam were always my least consistent events when I was in club and Elite, and I really didn’t think coming into a team-oriented squad that the coaches would have enough confidence in me to do them,” said Dennis.  “My freshman and sophomore years, we didn’t have much depth and I kind of just had to get it together and compete. I was physically capable of doing the events, I just didn’t like them.”

Luckily, co-head coach Sarah Patterson was willing to give Dennis that push, and as a freshman earned second-team All-American honors in the all-around in addition to claiming the NCAA floor exercise title.  The native of Westampton, N.J., has continued to be a key factor in the Crimson Tide’s success over the last four years, and currently ranks third in the all-around (39.430 RQS) for the top-ranked squad.

“When she came to college, I don’t think she had any idea the impact she could make on our program,” said Patterson.  “She would have never envisioned herself being one of the top all-arounders in the country.”

“The coaches pushed me to fix my focus and want to compete on bars and beam because I’m a powerful gymnast, my skills on bars and beam are bigger than a normal gymnast,” said Dennis.  “I’m glad they pushed me because now I love competing in the all-around, and I always want to be a contributor to this team.”

Dennis, who ranks second on the floor (9.915), is also one of the top vaulters in the nation with a 9.910 regional qualifying score.   

“Her unique power and tremendous athletic ability set her apart on floor exercise and vault,” said Patterson.  “She’s at the end of our vault lineup not because she always sticks her vault, but because she has one of the biggest vaults in the country and it’s hard to compare a vault after that.  We had a great vaulting performance at Kentucky, and then she nails her vault with a 9.975 because in comparison to all the other vaults because it is just that good.”

But although she has had extraordinary success on vault and floor, Dennis is probably most satisfied when she turns in a stellar routine on the two events she once avoided, including a first-team All-American finish on the uneven bars last season.

“It’s really rewarding when I do perform well (on bars and beam) because I’ve come a really long way and have been so much,” said Dennis.  “It’s really nice to see that hard work has really paid off.”

“Last year, I think she had the surprise of her career when she hit the bar routine of her life at nationals and became an All-American on the uneven bars, which is the event she still struggles with in terms of lines and execution,” said Patterson.  “Now, she has a confidence about herself that has transcended into all of these meets. She’s in the best physical condition of her career and that has helped her durability over this season.”

Alabama travels to Oklahoma on March 5 at 7 p.m. CT for a highly-anticipated No. 1 vs. No. 2 match-up.  It will be the first time since 1991 that the Tide will visit Norman during the regular season – that squad also won the national title.
 
“I think the road to a national championship will involve having to beat Oklahoma at some point in time,” said Patterson.  “For us, it’s exciting that we get to go there and experience it.  Once we get to the NCAA Championships, we will have seen most of the top teams in the country.”

The two teams have been flip-flopping in the top two spots in the team rankings for the last six weeks, and will be a challenge for both schools, as well as a good road test for the Tide.

“How many times do you get the match-up of No. 1 versus No. 2?” said Patterson. “I’ve always said that I’d rather be in an arena with a lot of people that were cheering against us than being in an arena where nobody is cheering.  That experience will be what it will be like in Jacksonville at the Southeastern Conference Championships and in Gainesville at the NCAA Championships.  This takes us out of our comfort and puts us on different equipment and makes us adjust – all things that will prepare us down the road.

“Our team is ready for it,” said Dennis.  “We’ve competed against all of the other SEC schools, and have shown that by staying No. 1 or No. 2 all year that we are very consistent.”