Priess Leads Gym Tide To Region Win

It's been said that cleanliness is next to Godliness. That may be true more in gymnastics than anywhere else. Needing clean performances on both the uneven parallel bars and balance beam to close out the meet, the Alabama Crimson Tide nailed 11 of 12 routines in the sport's two most difficult events to close out a record regional win and the Oklahoma Sooners in two fell swoops.



Alabama won going away, with 197 points to Oklahoma's 196.6. Third went to Missouri (196), followed by Central Michigan (194.925), New Hampshire (193.65), and Maryland, with 192.8. The Crimson Tide of Coach Sarah Patterson has now won an NCAA-best 24 regional meets. UA advanced to it's 27th straight NCAA championship meet.

With her 31st season at the helm winding down, Patterson has been at it long enough to know when a team is peaking at the right time. A good sign was winning the Southeastern Conference meet March 21 with a 197.3. The regional performance? Even better.

"We haven't had a perfect meet yet. My hope is that we've saved it for the right night (at nationals)," said Patterson. "I'm as excited now to go to this 27th national (meet) as I was the first one. I never take it for granted."

Toward the end, things got dicey.

Through three rotations, Oklahoma's running total was 147.425. The Tide would need clean performances on bars and beam to hold it's lead.

Bama responded in rotation five with a bars total of 49.225. At the same time, OU finished it's evening with a vault score of 49.175, watching out of the corners of their eyes while winner Kayla Hoffman scored a 9.95 and Priess a 9.9 to lead Bama on bars. Their night finished with a respectable 196.6 score, the only hope the Sooners had to win lay in Bama falling more than once on beam.

Leading off, Lebegern indeed fell, meaning Bama's next five competitors had to stay on the apparatus. Here's how Bama closed things out, with the meet and maybe the season on the line: Sullivan, who graduated from high school early and should be shopping for prom dresses, scored a clean and clutch 9.9.

Coming off a fractured finger, Kassi Price got through a difficult routine with a 9.9.

The heart of the order came up next. "The closers," if you will.

Stack-Eaton stumbled ever so slightly, but stayed on for a 9.75.

Dennis, quickly becoming an all-time Tide great, turned in a 9.85.

Priess nailed the meet and her routine with a meet-best 9.95. Again, clutch.

Said Patterson, "We had a beam inter-squad Sunday to group back in a competitive mode. Rick fell then, and we hit six straight routines. I felt comfortable and confident that this team would respond. We had practiced this scenario."

Added Priess, who also won the all-around with a 39.55, "All I could think about was breathing, and doing it for the team. I actually like that pressure. I didn't want to let myself down or let the team down."

Before Alabama team took the floor for it's first rotation in the 2009 NCAA Northeast Regional Championships, one thing seemed crystal-clear: Oklahoma had come to compete. As No.3 Bama sat out the first rotation of the meet with a bye, the Sooners racked up a 49.125 bars score.

As was the case when Oklahoma visited for a tri-meet back on March 13 (a meet Bama won on the last routine by two one-hundredths of a point), the ninth-ranked Sooners brought their "A-game." It was up to the Crimson Tide of Sarah Patterson to respond.

As the 5,074 mostly crimson-clad fans soon found out, Bama was up to the task. (Attendance was affected by a local air show along with home baseball and softball games.)

So how would it shake out in Tuscaloosa, where only the top two finishers advance to nationals in Lincoln, Neb. April 16-18?

Bama opened on floor, where it finishes at normal home meets. Senior Ashley O'Neal led off with a 9.825, but freshman Caitlin Sullivan had a slight stumble en route to a 9.7, a score Bama hoped to drop. Freshman Geralen Stack-Eaton tumbled to a 9.825, and crowd favorite Ricky Lebegern spelled out B-A-M-A on the floor to earn a season-high 9.9. Freshman Ashley Priess and junior Morgan Dennis closed out the floor with respective scores of 9.85 and 9.925 (the latter a winning score). It was not the first time Dennis has brought the Coleman Coliseum crowd to it's feet.

As a team, the Tide was indeed able to drop Sullivan' score and turn in a 49.325. It was on.

While the Tide was on floor, the Sooners were putting together a 48.975 beam score.

Sensing a chance to take a sizable lead, Bama tallied a 49.1 on vault, led by Hoffman's 9.9,which was good for a first place tie in the event. The score would have been higher had the Tide not had to count a 9.65 by freshman Rachel Terry.

With both teams through two rotations, Alabama led Oklahoma, 98.425 -98.1. That's a healthy lead, but OU had completed the two toughest events, and Bama still had bars and beam to go to hold onto it's lead. Surprisingly, unranked Central Michigan was in third after round two with a 97.7 score.

The crimson and white had a bye in the fourth rotation, but the crimson and cream of OU hit the floor exercise hard and scored a 49.325 (same as Bama's), with their fans screaming "Boomer, Sooner!"

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