Alabama gymnastics takes first at regionals, advances to championships

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CW | Grant Nicholls

Terrin Waack

Despite facing a fall on the balance beam and on the floor exercise, the University of Alabama gymnastics team claimed first place with a score of 197.125 at the NCAA Tuscaloosa Gymnastics Regionals on Saturday, advancing the Crimson Tide to the NCAA Championships in Ft. Worth, Texas starting on April 15.

Also making the trip to the NCAA Championship will be California, finishing regionals in second with a 195.925.

“Would I say it was pretty? No,” Alabama coach Dana Duckworth said. “It wasn’t our prettiest performance but it was an example of never giving up and not having an kind of fast-pace problem. We talked about [how] we weren’t going to be perfect, and the important thing was what the next moment, and I feel that they completely accomplished that. Just some weird, really odd mistakes, and we bounced back.”

The Crimson Tide started on a bye before competing on the uneven bars for its first taste of competition. The team posted a 49.275 without any hiccups, but then it headed to the balance beam.

Sophomore Keely McNeer was set to lead off, holding a season-high score of 9.9 and a career-high score of 9.925, but early into her routine, neither of those scores was possible – not even close – as she fell off before she could even get started.

“On balance beam, Keely McNeer has never fallen in her career,” Duckworth said. “The way she fell in her dance was the most out-of-body, uncharacteristic thing that I was almost shocked.”

McNeer got back up, finished her routine and scored a 9.325.

Junior Mary Lillian Sanders competed third on the balance beam for the Crimson Tide and said she wasn’t thinking about McNeer’s fall before her; she was focused on doing exactly what she does in practice every day.

Fairly new to the competitive lineup, Sanders made her career-debut on the balance beam at the SEC Championships on March 19.

“It’s been wonderful that Dana [Duckworth] has given me the opportunity to get out there, to have trust in me,” Sanders said. “I’ve been persevering for a really long time, just never gave up, and I came to a point where I could either choose to write myself off or really put myself out there and show that I can bring something to this team.”

Duckworth said she didn’t give Sanders her position; she earned it. 

Sanders proved that when her 9.850 score was revealed.

Alabama finished up on the balance beam with a 49.150, erasing McNeer’s mishap. The Crimson Tide had a meet-leading score of 98.425 before heading into its second bye.

“We were a little hesitant in the first two events,” Duckworth said. “I think that we went into the bye and we kind of reloaded and kind of refocused and just said, ‘Put it all out there,’ and that was our intention from the very beginning and then a few things happened. Then, the story kind of unfolded.”

Although, in the end, the Crimson Tide finished with 49-plus scores on every event, it only saw scores of 9.9 or higher out of the floor exercise, where it posted four in a row.

Before the trend could start, sophomore Mackenzie Brannan fell backwards after her final tumbling pass. Her score of 9.2 was avoided as junior Katie Bailey took the floor and scored a 9.9. Then, sophomore Kiana Winston followed with a 9.925.

Seniors Lauren Beers and Carley Sims closed out the floor exercise for the Crimson Tide, scoring a 9.950 and a 9.900 respectively. The two nailed their tumbling passes and each earned a 10 from one of the four judges.

Beers went into her floor routine simply wanting to enjoy performing one last time in Coleman Coliseum, to make the most out of it.

“At the end of my floor routine, I was almost starting to cry a bit, but I was like, ‘No, you can’t do this,’” she said. “I had fun. It was good emotions, not sad emotions.”

The Crimson Tide spent the meet’s final rotation on the vault where it posted a 49.225 to lock in its final score of 197.125.

Alabama holds an NCAA-best 31 regional titles and Saturday marked its 12th in a row.

“We needed to be really good; we didn’t have to be perfect tonight,” Duckworth said. “I think in the back of our minds we knew that, so is it a little bit of a let down that there was still some left on the table? Probably, I think we could all say that, but the reality is, we had one goal tonight. It was to qualify to the National Championship, and we did it.”