Gymnastics to open 2022 campaign against No. 3 Oklahoma

Graduate student Lexi Graber performs her floor routine during SEC Championships on March 20, 2021.

Graduate student Lexi Graber performs her floor routine during SEC Championships on March 20, 2021.

Robert Cortez | @robertcortez27, Assistant Sports Editor

The defending Southeastern Conference champions No. 6 Alabama is set to begin its 2022 season against the most dominant program in the past decade, No. 3 Oklahoma. 

The Oklahoma Sooners have won four national championships in the past eight years and eight Big 12 conference titles in the past 10 years. 

“​​We always say if you want to be the best compete against the best,” head coach Dana Duckworth said. “We have gone in with a mindset and the coaching philosophy has really been about being as prepared as possible with as many athletes as possible at the highest level.”

Duckworth and staff will be able to pencil in 22 of the 24 routines that were competed in Huntsville, Alabama last March en route to the program’s 10th conference title. This includes the whole vault and uneven bars lineup. 

“It is nice to see that they really know what to expect at this first week,” Duckworth said. “But at the same time, they truly know how high our expectations are of the kind of team that they can be.”

Eight of the 22 return routines will come from a pair of Alabama All-Americans – graduate student Lexi Graber and junior Luisa Blanco. In 2021, Graber became the NCAA champion on floor exercise, a two-time SEC balance beam champion and was named an All-SEC member. Blanco was one of the top gymnasts in the country last season after being named the SEC Gymnast of the Year, a finalist for the 2021 Honda Award and became the NCAA champion on the balance beam. 

Senior Shallon Olsen and junior Makarri Doggette are the other two All-Americans on the roster. Doggette is an SEC champion on the uneven bars and is a strong candidate to anchor the event. 

“I just want to lead by example and make sure that we stay on track and remember what our goal is at the end of the year to have that opportunity to win the national championship,” Graber said. 

The veteran roster is accompanied by a trio of freshmen in Lily Hudson, Corinne Bunagan and Jordyn Paradise. Hudson was a Junior International Elite competitor, Bunagan was a USA Junior Olympic National Beam Champion in 2017 and Paradise was a Two-time USA Junior Olympic National Championships qualifier. Both Bunagan and Paradise made an appearance in the Crimson White meet, season preview meet, while Hudson competed in the all-around. 

“The freshmen just hopped right in like they’ve been here for years too,” senior Emily Gaskins said. “So that kind of relationship that we’ve built in that sisterhood is gonna take us so far.”

Three of the past four national champions have opened up the season with a score of 197 or better. Alabama has yet to score a 197 in its season opener with Duckworth as the skipper. The last time the Crimson Tide scored 197 or better to open up its season was in 2014.

In Alabama’s last five head-to-head meets against Oklahoma, it has yet to record a win. The Sooners have toppled the Crimson Tide by an average of .765 of a point. 

Will this be the year Duckworth claims her first victory over Oklahoma? 

Find out on Sunday, Jan. 9 at 2 p.m. CT. The meet will be held in the Lloyd Noble Center in Norman, Oklahoma and broadcast on ESPN.