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Clutch finish on balance beam lifts Alabama to historic title

Staff Photo: John Bohn
Alabama's Ashley Priess (110) celebrates with teammates after Alabama won a national title in the team finals of the 2012 NCAA Women's Gymnastics Championships held at the Arena at Gwinnett Center Saturday.

Staff Photo: John Bohn Alabama's Ashley Priess (110) celebrates with teammates after Alabama won a national title in the team finals of the 2012 NCAA Women's Gymnastics Championships held at the Arena at Gwinnett Center Saturday.

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Staff Photo: John Bohn Alabama's Ashley Priess competes on the balance beam during the team finals of the 2012 NCAA Women's Gymnastics Championships are held at the Arena at Gwinnett Center Saturday. Alabama won the national championship team title with a score of 197.850.

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Staff Photo: John Bohn Alabama's Geralen Stack-Eaton celebrates her balance beam performance during the team finals of the 2012 NCAA Women's Gymnastics Championships are held at the Arena at Gwinnett Center Saturday. Alabama won the national championship team title.

DULUTH -- Having heard the roar from the Florida supporters in the crowd of 5,495 at the Arena at Gwinnett Center following Kytra Hunter's performance on the floor exercise, Alabama co-head coach Sarah Patterson nervously knew her team would need one last strong performance on the balance beam.

Fortunately for her and the Crimson Tide, Ashley Priess wasn't thinking in the same terms.

The senior calmly surpassed Hunter's score of 9.925 with a 9.95, capping a strong performance by the Crimson Tide on the beam that lifting them past the Gators and to the team championship at the NCAA Women's Gymnastics Super Six on Saturday.

Priess and fellow senior Geralen Stack-Eaton helped the Tide their second straight national championship with 197.850, just .075 ahead of runner-up Florida at 197.775 and .100 ahead of third-place UCLA at 197.750.

They also helped Patterson match Bear Bryant, the man who hired her while serving as Alabama's athletics director 34 years ago, with her sixth national title and sent a large Crimson Tide contingent, which included the Alabama pep band, into celebration.

"It's amazing," Patterson said of matching Bryant's title total. "I remember the first one back in 1988 vividly. And I was asked about that on camera, just kind of the comparison. The way I look at it, I just feel like the gymnastics program is just a small part of the rich history and tradition of the University of Alabama. And I could not be more proud to be a part of it.

"I said going into (Saturday) that his would be the closest and most contended meet that I had ever coached in. I felt like because of the quality of teams, it would come down to the very end. I knew Kytra Hunter was going up on floor and Ashley Priess was going on the balance beam."

And while Patterson was fully aware of the score Hunter, who had won the individual all-around competition with a score of 39.725 in Friday's semifinals, posted on floor, Priess' mind was more inwardly-focused.

"No, there was nothing in my mind I thought about (like), 'I have to stick this,' or, 'I really need a good score,'" said Priess, who sat in the stands recovering from injuries to both ankles as Alabama won the title last year. "Championships always come down to the last routine, no matter if it was a close meet or not a lose meet. I knew I had to do my job, and I knew that I was capable of doing it to the best of my ability. The only thing going through my mind was to be calm, cool and collected and do my job."

And Priess did the job for Alabama with her 9.95 routine, which followed Stack-Eaton's routine that earned an identical 9.95 score to help the Tide post a total of 49.450 on the beam.

"We knew going into beam that we are a great beam team," said Stack-Eaton, who finished tied for fourth with Alaina Johnson of Florida in the all-around. "We just wanted to go up there and do each routine and hit it like we knew how. We had the utmost faith in ourselves and one another."

That faith paid off as Alabama emerged from a day that included strong performances across the board, including Johnson, who had 9.90 or better on floor, uneven bars and beam and UCLA's Vanessa Zamarripa, who posted matching 9.95 scores on bars and beam and a perfect 10 on vault.

While Georgia did not compete in Saturday's team finals, the Gym Dogs will be represented when the championship weekend concludes with the individual event competition today at 1 p.m.

Kat Ding, who finished as runner-up to Hunter in the all-around competition Friday, will compete for the titles on vault, bars and floor, while Lindsey Cheek will represent Georgia on vault and Chelsea Davis will compete on bars.