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Road to NCAA gymnastics title begins in Gwinnett with SEC meet

DULUTH -- The national championship is the ultimate goal for every college gymnastics team, and the road to that goal ends at The Arena at Gwinnett Center during the NCAA Division I Championships next month.

In a sense, that road also begins at The Arena at Gwinnett Center with the Southeastern Conference Championships which get under way with the opening rotation today at 4 p.m.

"This is the marquee event in our sport, even moreso in some ways than the national championships," said Jay Clark, in his third season as head coach at the University of Georgia, which as won 16 SEC championships and an NCAA-record 10 national titles. "The fanfare and the passion that is behind it and the rivalries that exist, this really, in my mind, is the marquee event in our sport."

Based on the credentials of the teams competing today, that's no idle boast.

All seven of the teams that will take to the floor at The Arena at Gwinnett Center today appear in the national top 25 rankings, including five -- defending SEC and national champion Alabama (No. 3), current No. 1 Florida, Georgia (No. 5), LSU (No. 8) and Arkansas (No. 10) -- currently ranked in the top 10.

So, it's not a stretch to consider today's competition the first stage of the national championship charge.

It's also not a stretch to say that there's more than conference pride on the line.

"You can go to the regionals and nationals, and there's a lot of pressure," said Alabama co-head coach Sarah Patterson. "The competition here mirrors what it's like on the last night of the NCAA Championships. I think that is why teams from our conference have done so well at nationals. It's because this prepares us. We have a preparation that nobody else has."

Indeed, the competition will be deep, not only in the team championships, but also individually, which some of the top gymnasts scheduled to compete, including three finalists for the AAI award -- considered by some as gymnastics' equivalent to the Heisman Trophy -- Georgia's Kat Ding, Alabama's Geralen Stack-Eaton and Arkansas' Jaime Pisani.

"It's going to be huge," Georgia senior Gina Nuccio said. "We have a lot of top teams in here. It's going to be an amazing experience for all of us, and it's a good way to fight to the end."