National title returns to Tuscaloosa

Stars fell on Alabama. <br><br>For the third meet in a row, the Tide gymnasts were called on to end a key competition on the normally daunting balance beam. But just like at Regionals and during Thursday's preliminaries, Bama's GymTiders came through like champions, riding the top beam score of the night to the program's fourth national title.

Alexa Martinez, the Tide's lead-off gymnast on the balance beam, explained, "We've gotten used to ending on beam. At the beginning of the year we were all kind of nervous, but once we got used to it and practiced it every day in the gym we all felt very comfortable with it. We were excited to be able to end on beam tonight, because we now know that we can do a great job on that last event."

The victory marks Alabama's fourth national championship, its first since 1996.

Under the direction of Head Coach Sarah Patterson, Alabama has developed a reputation as one of the top gymnastics programs in the nation. But while staying among the country's elite, in recent years the Tide had come up just short in championship competitions.

Bama's last national title was in 1996, and Patterson is savoring this one. "I'm so proud and I'm so happy for these ladies," she said. "I know that each and every one of them came here to The University of Alabama because first of all they wanted a great education. They wanted to be part of a family environment.

"And they all wanted to win a national championship."

Having won just about every individual honor out there, senior Andree' Pickens will finish her career as one of the best athletes in the history of Alabama gymnastics. But until last night a national title had eluded her. "To be a part of this wonderful group of people, this takes up for last year's (injury), the year before…

"This is a perfect ending of a four-year career. I'm just excited. My freshmen told me--the team told me--they weren't going to let me go without a title. So I'm grateful for them."

Alabama's final score was 197.575, more than three tenths of a point better than second-place Georgia. And a closer look at the scores proves the Tide's dominance. At 49.325, Alabama and UCLA tied for the night's top score on vault. Along with Georgia, the Tide had the top score on beam of 49.375. And Bama's 49.325 (vault) and 49.425 (floor) won both events outright.

During a career spanning more than three decades, Sarah Patterson has built the Tide into one of the premier gymnastics programs in the country.

Six teams competing in four events means that the audience is often in the dark about the actual scores during a competition. But Patterson has a pretty good calculator in her head. And headed into the final rotation the Bama coach knew what her team had to do. "At the end I didn't even know who was behind us," Patterson said. "But after Kristin Sterner (Bama's next to last competitor) landed her beam routine, I knew where we were."

As with most gymnastics meets, it came down to the final rotation. And with Jeana Rice (fourth spot), Kristin Sterner (fifth) and Andree' Pickens (anchor), Alabama had three competitors with ice water in their veins. "Jeana Rice on beam was key," Patterson said. "When we got through that fourth beam routine, we were there. I knew that one of the two coming up at the end---I believed that both were going to hit---but I knew that there was no way that both of them were coming down."

When Sterner stuck her landing off the beam, the national title belonged to the Tide.

But for good measure Pickens finished off with a 9.950, the top balance beam score of the night. "I was crying even before I went to the beam," Pickens said. "I knew if we were solid, then we were fine. I was a little tense before I did my routine. Jeana (Rice) came over and told me ‘You can do this, Dre.'

With the song "We are the champions" playing over the PA system, Kristin Sterner and Andree' Pickens (back left) celebrate with their teammates.

"To finish strong, to hit the routine, that just made it all that much better. I don't have words to describe it. It's just great."

Finishing with a flourish on floor, Georgia (197.250) placed second with last year's champion UCLA (197.150) in third. Utah (196.950) was fourth, Nebraska (196.425) fifth and Stanford (196.025) sixth.

Befitting a national championship team, Alabama did not have a single fall the whole night. With a score of 9.95 on vault, floor and bars, Pickens paced the Tide on all three events. On floor exercise, Pickens, Sterner and Alexis Brion all turned in 9.900 scores to lead their the Tide.

"My team wanted this just as much as I did, and that made it even better," Pickens said. "We were working toward a common goal. We were able to come out and do our best. It was what we trained for all year. We've been through so many ups and downs. But it's just been a great experience. I just want to say ‘Thank, y'all,' to my teammates."

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