Tide floors opposition to take fifth national titleBy Jason Galloway | 04/17/2011 11:12pm
CLEVELAND | University of Alabama gymnasts, coaches, parents, athletic department officials and fans piled into Cleveland’s Hard Rock Café on Saturday evening not more than an hour after winning the 2011 NCAA National Championship, howling chants of “Roll Tide!” and “S-E-C!” in the heart of Big Ten country. The dismayed Florida Gators, who spent most of the season at No. 1 but got knocked out of contention the day before, looked on silently, barely managing an emotionless and half-hearted congratulations as the Crimson Tide strolled past their tables with the heavy championship trophy in hand.
From the time senior Kayla Hoffman landed a 9.95 on the floor exercise to clinch the title, the pictures, hugs and cheering had not ceased. The team bus resonated with everything from “It’s booty-shaking, first-place taking time,” to “Hey Super Six! We just beat the hell out of you!” Even as she was with her parents waiting to be led into the dim-lit basement of the famous restaurant, a trail of water still lined Hoffman’s cheek.
“Sometimes, it’s not about talent,” she said after the meet. “It’s about heart. Because we’re so close — that made the difference.”
Talent was something everyone thought had left the team last year. All-Americans Morgan Dennis, Ricki Lebegern, Kassi Price and Casey Overton graduated after the 2010 season, and another All-American, Ashley Priess, had reconstructive ankle surgery in the off-season, which sidelined her for the entire 2011 season.
Last year was considered their year to win, but a couple mishaps on floor exercise and the unexpected injury to Priess kept them from the title and dropped them to a devastating third place. As sophomore Ben Smith, the team’s short, spunky videographer, said Saturday, “You had to be there last year to really understand how great this was.”
When the 2011 season began, eight of the 16 gymnasts on the active roster were freshmen, and more than half the team’s routines from last year were being replaced. When the preseason rankings came out with Alabama at No. 2, head coach Sarah Patterson could do nothing but laugh.
“When I saw that poll, I said, ‘Are you kidding me?’” she said. “I was horrified that they had made us second.”
Patterson actually penned her own team down at No. 6, but the rest of the coaches based their rankings on potential and history. Alabama was one of only four teams to ever win the NCAA Gymnastics National Championship and had finished in the top three in 19 of the past 25 years. Even though three teams – Georgia, Utah and UCLA – had more total championships, Alabama was the model for consistency. They were always there at the end of the season.
“Our goal at the University of Alabama is to always be on the floor the last night of the season with the opportunity to compete for a national championship,” said Patterson, who is now one title away from matching legendary Alabama football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant’s total of six. “For us, being in that position and having that opportunity, I never take it for granted.”
Once again, after a bumpy first half of the season and a second half filled with dominance, that opportunity presented itself yet again. The freshmen now looked like veterans and the veterans like stars, and on the last night of the season, Alabama was once again at the top of the standings.
And like all champions do, the Tide had to fight through adversity. On Alabama’s third event of the night, the usually sure-footed Hoffman slipped off the thin, four-inch beam. Each team drops its lowest score on each event, but if either of the Tide’s last two competitors followed Hoffman’s lead, Alabama would suffer another devastating defeat in the Super Six finals.
Perhaps it was fitting that the next gymnast in the lineup was a freshman, Sarah DeMeo. Hoffman was expressionless when she fell, as if nothing had even happened. To her, she had no reason to get down. Like they had all season, she knew her teammates would step up when she needed them the most.
After finishing her routine, Hoffman trotted over to DeMeo, smiled and told her, “I know we’ve got this.”
Hoffman was probably more confident than anyone, especially DeMeo. She had not fallen on beam all season, but she had never been in a situation like this. The 19-year-old freshman was carrying Alabama’s national championship hopes on her shoulders.
DeMeo later said she had never been that nervous, but she looked as confident as ever. She hardly even suffered a wobble on her way to a 9.825. Junior Geralen Stack-Eaton, the last competitor on beam, also performed unfazed, and Alabama went into the final rotation .025 ahead of defending-champion UCLA.
“If you know how to compete, you know how to compete,” Hoffman said. “It doesn’t matter if you’ve been here for one year or five years. It’s just about what you feel inside and having confidence in yourself.”
After a back-and-forth battle in the final rotation with the Tide on floor and UCLA on beam, Diandra Milliner, Stack-Eaton and Hoffman posted scores of 9.875, 9.925 and 9.95, respectively, to pull away and clinch Alabama’s fifth national championship.
Back in the basement of Cleveland’s Hard Rock Café, the NCAA Gymnastics National Championship trophy sits on a mantle next to a frame of assorted old records and a sky blue electric guitar signed by every member of the band Vengeance.
Just beneath it, at a table tucked in the back corner of the room, Stack-Eaton answers congratulatory text messages from her brother and sister in between bites of chicken quesadillas, and occasionally moves her body to the music playing over the speakers. Near the end of the meal, DeMeo walks over and sits in an empty seat next to her before someone else at the table says, “Hey, we got the two heroes over here now.”
For a few seconds, both gymnasts stopped what they were doing and looked confused. “Oh yeah, I guess,” DeMeo finally responded.
They did not see themselves as heroes. They were just teammates. That is what made this group of girls a national-championship caliber squad. They were a true team, relying on each other every step of the way. If DeMeo or Stack-Eaton had been the one to make an error, they would have been as confident as Hoffman that the gymnasts behind them would have picked up the slack. Last year’s talent was gone, but this year’s chemistry was priceless, something even the best talent can’t buy.
“[This team] blossomed and blossomed and turned into something so beautiful and something that we cherish so much,” Hoffman said. “This team means the world to all of us. To end it like this is just amazing.”