Alabama gymnastics earns NCAA-best 32nd regional title


Stephen Alvarez

Lexi Graber tied her season high with a 9.95 on vault.

Ben Stansell

Before junior Ari Guerra performed her vault, no gymnast on any team had posted a score of 9.9 or higher. Although it was only the second rotation, it had already become apparent that scoring would be tighter than normal.

That did not faze Guerra, who notched a 9.9, creating momentum that the Crimson Tide used to record a season-high 49.35 on vault. Behind that season high, Alabama was able to capture an NCAA-best 32nd Regional Title with a score of 197.225. The win also secured Alabama a trip to the NCAA Championships for the 36th consecutive year.

After Guerra nailed her 9.9 on vault, it was freshman Lexi Graber’s turn. Prior to performing, Graber received an impassioned pep talk from senior Nickie Guerrero.

“All night, right before I get up and do my routine, [Guerrero] knows I get little jitters whether I want to admit it or not, so she just comes up and tells me to do what I know how to do and don’t overthink it,” Graber said. “It works.”

It certainly worked for Graber. She stuck her vault en route to tying a career-high 9.95. Graber’s impressive score was the crown jewel of a performance that earned her first place in the all-around competition.

“I think that was the best vault I’ve ever seen Lexi Graber do,” coach Dana Duckworth said.

Guerrero followed up Graber’s high score with one of her own- a 9.9. As Alabama began to pick up steam, one potential roadblock loomed ahead: The Crimson Tide would have to sit out its first bye rotation, a procedure required by the six team regional format.

Alabama elected to return to the locker room during its bye, where its gymnasts appeared to be “really chill,” said Duckworth.

A moment that could have put a damper on Alabama’s momentum seemed to do the opposite. Coming out of the break, the Crimson Tide was less fiery, but even more focused.

“We kind of just stayed in our ‘Bama bubble and really used the momentum that we had to channel it towards a different kind of energy,” senior Kiana Winston said. “Vault and floor is more kind of fire, but for bars and beam its more kind of calm and steady just kind of going with the flow.”

On bars, an event that Alabama struggled on at the SEC Championships, Alabama posted a 49.4 behind a string of three straight 9.9s from Graber, fellow freshman Kylie Dickson, and Winston.

The Crimson Tide had a knack for scoring 9.9 or higher on a night when scores that high were scarce. Alabama had more than twice as many 9.9s or greater, 7, than the next closest teams, Central Michigan and Georgia, who each had 3.

After bars, Alabama sealed its ticket to the National Championship with a 49.275 on beam. Winston, performing for the last time in Coleman Coliseum, led the way for the Crimson Tide with a 9.925. A score that was good enough to win her first place overall on the event. Guerrero contributed a 9.875 in her farewell performance, an emotional moment for her.

“I just started to cheer and then I realized the crowd was just so loud, one of the loudest I’ve heard it all year,” Guerrero said. “Then it just kind of hit me that I’ve had such a great opportunity here and they’ve treated me so well and I couldn’t have asked for a better year my senior year.”

Unlike most meets, Alabama competed on floor first, earning a team score of 49.2. Graber notched a team-high 9.875 and sophomore Maddie Desch and Guerrero added two 9.85s.

While Alabama appeared in control of first place for most of the meet, an intense fight for second place, and a chance to compete at the National Championships, came down to Georgia’s last performer on beam. It took Sabrina Vega’s 9.875 for the Gymdogs to edge out Illinois 196.5 – 196.425 for second.

Alabama is set to compete at the NCAA Championships in Chaifetz Arena in St. Louis, Missouri on April 20.

“I mean it’s my first one, so it should be exciting,” Graber said.