Gymnastics team opens Duckworth era with win

Gymnastics team opens Duckworth era with win

Aja Sims checks her landing while competing on the balance beam. CW | Pete Pajor

Kayla Montgomery

Much was the same for the Alabama gymnastics team’s season opener against Arizona Friday night. The team took the floor to the same pyrotechnic introduction, Coleman Coliseum still recorded 12,000-plus in attendance, but the face of long-time head coach Sarah Patterson was absent from the floor.

In her place was 20-year program veteran Dana Duckworth, who led the Crimson Tide to its first win of the season. Before a crowd of 12,123 people, Alabama topped the University of Arizona 196.225-194.375, with strong vault and floor performances.

After beginning her career with the University as a gymnast herself, tonight marked a complete cycle for the new head coach. Before the team began the meet on the vault, Duckworth took in the environment with senior athlete Kayla Williams.

“I was like, ‘Kayla, remind me to take a step back, look at the audience, take a deep breath and just enjoy the moment right then,’” Duckworth said. “For me, it was like ‘Wow, I’m truly the head coach of my alma mater. How blessed am I?’ Then it was go time.”

The match also marked a return of her own for Williams, who missed the entirety of last season after suffering an injury to her Achilles tendon before she could take the floor.

“I felt good all week, all fall, all morning, and the lights went down and the fireworks went off and I felt myself kind of getting jittery,” she said. “For me, I maybe tried to calm myself down a little too much, but I think this is round one of many battles that we have to come this year, so lesson learned.”

Jitters were common for the team as it entered a new era, but Duckworth said she was proud of her team and how they responded to the nerves of transitioning from the practice facility to the arena filled with fans for the first time.

“We were calm, patient, ready, and the butterflies kind of hit this morning. I feel like we expected some jitters, we expected some introductions of new faces and such,” she said. “I’m very proud of the overall performance of coming back from mistakes and ending strong. Certainly some work to do, but I think we’re headed in the right direction.”

Sophomore Keely McNeer opened the first meet of the Duckworth chapter of the program on the vault, posting a 9.850 to open competition. Senior Kaitlyn Clark posted the first high score of the night with a 9.950 on the apparatus, leading the team to a 49.375 score overall.

Following their strong opening on vault, the Crimson Tide faltered slightly on the uneven bars in rotation two. The team counted falls by freshman Kiana Winston and sophomore Amanda Jetter before finishing with a solid performance on beam and floor.

Despite the struggles, Duckworth said she did not lose any confidence in her freshman gymnast who suffered from her own case of jitters and she proved her true talent by her ability to come back from mistakes, something the team as a whole did well Friday.

“This was the first time she was healthy and got to get back out there, and she’s a freshman,” Duckworth said of Winston. “But she gets it, and she will have more opportunity to show that she can handle that pressure.”

Sophomore Katie Bailey, who won the all-around competition, said the team was able to overcome bumps in the match because of diligent practice.

“I think that in practice we do a really good job of trying out different scenarios, so when someone has a mistake we’re really good about adjusting to it,” she said. “It’s the same thing when we get out under the lights. It’s go time.”

The Crimson Tide will travel to Arkansas next week before returning to Coleman to face Florida Jan. 23 at 6:30 p.m. As the team faces off against the reigning national champions, Duckworth said she hopes the crowd returns with the same energy they had on Friday as they welcomed several new faces to the floor.

“I think we need to applaud our crowd for their energy,” she said. “We want them back against Florida, for sure.”