Tide not fazed by injury to key performer

Coming off a stellar performance at Regionals, Alabama was seeded No. 1 for the National Championship meet and on a roll. But then for the second consecutive year, a veteran all-arounder went down with an injury. <br><br>Last season Andree' Pickens tore her Achilles tendon the week before Nationals, but this time around senior Raegan Tomasek's ankle injuries occurred less than an hour before the meet was to begin.

"When it first happened it definitely took a little out of us," junior Kristin Sterner explained. "We were a little quiet. But (Raegan) came back to the locker room and pumped us all up. She said to do it for her. I think that's what everybody's mindset was. It's her senior year.

"When something bad like that happens, you have to stay focused and not let it get you down, because she wouldn't want that to happen."

With Raegan Tomasek sidelined by an injury, Tiffany Byrd turned in solid performances on both beam and the parallel bars.

For Tide Head Coach Sarah Patterson, Tomasek's injury brought back unwelcome memories of last season. "You have to hate it for a senior," she said. "Hopefully Raegan will be OK, but you hurt because she lost that moment.

"For awhile in warmups we were kind of somber. But we went back to the locker room and I told them it was OK to relax and have fun and enjoy this. ‘We're going to take a different route tonight to get there.' Raegan was in the training room at the time with the doctors, and I said, ‘She wants you to enjoy this meet.'"

Just before the team was to take the floor, Tomasek limped into the locker room with a message. "I was going to say something really inspirational," she related. "But I knew I was going to get teary and start to cry. So I just told them ‘Good luck.' They didn't really need anything else. They're a great team. I love them, and they know that. So words weren't needed."

"Coach Patterson just told us to relax and stay focused," Sterner remembered. "‘We can't get down. We can't let something like this get in the way of the team competition. Let's go out there and win it for Raegan.' If anything, that's what we did tonight. And we want to do it again Friday night. Go out there and try to do the same thing for Raegan."

For many teams, losing a key performer scant minutes before a crucial meet could not be overcome. But this Bama squad has been there before. "We've responded to injuries before," Tomasek said. "At the Auburn meet Kristin got hurt, and we had a great meet. I don't think there was a doubt in anybody's mind that they couldn't do it."

"Yeah, we've been in this position before," Sterner agreed. "The only thing you want is your team to not get down because of you. You want them to still have fun and stay motivated."

Before the meet Patterson calmly informed her squad that sophomores Tiffany Byrd (bars and beam) and Lauren Holdefer (vault and floor) would be competing in Tomasek's place. "Raegan was scheduled to go in the All-Around, and the next person just stepped in," Patterson said. "To have that happen and see your team rebound--I'm just so proud of them. We talk about being prepared for whatever happens, and they stepped up."

Normally an all-arounder herself, Kristin Sterner is still recovering from an ankle injury suffered before the Auburn meet.

"Actually we were ready," Patterson continued. "The other day in practice Raegan wasn't feeling well, so we took her out. We were having an intrasquad (competition) that day, so we had already substituted people in. Nothing changed. We just substituted those people back in."

Of course it helped immensely that both Byrd and Holdefer had practical experience to fall back on. Patterson explained, "Tiffany was in this position last year when Andree' was injured. She stepped in for us at the National Championship and did a great job. We've used Lauren all year. Throughout the course of time I have changed the lineup a lot. We've had a lot of people step in and do a good job."

Holdefer contributed a 9.75 on vault and scored a very good 9.90 on floor. Byrd had a solid 9.80 on bars, and was also part of another stellar Bama performance on the balance beam. "Building that depth during the year definitely paid off tonight," Sterner said. "This was a perfect example of our depth. We've been practicing beam very hard every week."

"I wasn't surprised by what (Lauren and Tiffany) did," Sterner continued. "They practice like that every day in the gym. We have inter-squad (competitions) under pressure situations. They've been out there since the beginning of the season. They have been in front of a crowd like this before. We have such depth on our team that I think anybody in the lineup could go out there and do what they did. They did a great job.

Heading into the final rotation, the Tide trailed top-ranked UCLA by .075 of a point. But for the second meet in a row Alabama was to finish up on the balance beam.

Normally the scourge of gymnasts everywhere, Bama had put up an NCAA record score on the beam at the Regional competition hosted by West Virginia. "We knew we were in a good position," Sterner said. "We wanted to repeat what we did at Regionals. We didn't want to change anything. We wanted to go up there and do what we do every day in practice. Replicate what we did at Regionals."

Filling in on both vault and the floor exercise, Lauren Holdefer helped propel Alabama into tomorrow's Super Six championship.

Of the six teams advancing to Friday's championship meet, Alabama achieved the highest qualifying score Thursday, besting the Bruins by two tenths of a point. But unfortunately for Tide fans all six teams will start from scratch, and Bama will be competing without one of its top gymnasts. "I'll have to give (my ankles) awhile and see," Tomasek said. "They're both really tender, so the doctor couldn't do a whole lot with them. I'll ice them again and see how it goes. I can walk now, so at least no one will have to carry me home."

Patterson commented on the injury, "She'll get better as time goes on, but Raegan really jammed those ankles pretty good. I'm glad it's not something major, but it's hard for a gymnast. It's not just running a little slower; it's being able to push off and land. I would say she probably will not be able to do anything Friday."

But having faced down an Olympic-laden UCLA squad and come out on top, Sterner likes the Tide's chances. "I think that what we did tonight will be a big confidence booster," she said. "A lot of that will carry over. We went out there and did a great job.

"I don't know. We just go out there tomorrow and do our job and concentrate on what we're doing. If we're having fun, then we'll be fine."

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