Caitlin Atkinson (above) is the SEC Gymnast of the Year.
Ann Arbor, Mich.--Auburn made school history on Saturday night as the Tigers advanced to the NCAA Women's Gymnastics Championships for a second straight year, a first for the Tigers.
The sixth-ranked Tigers struggled on the balance beam to tie Stanford for first place at the Ann Arbor Regional with a score of 196.525 at the Crisler Center on the campus of the University of Michigan. The top two teams from six regionals around the country advanced to nationals.
"I thought the team did a really good job with handling the pressure tonight," Auburn coach Jeff Graba said. "There was a handful of early hiccups to start, but I thought we did really well at the end and cranked out some good routines. To make nationals for the second year in a row solidifies the fact that we are a contender to advance to the national championship every year."
The Tigers advance to the NCAA Championship for the fifth time in program history. Last year the Tigers finished second at nationals, matching their previous best.
The regional first place finish is also a first in program history. Host Michigan, which was ranked seventh nationally, came in third with a 196.475. Eastern Michigan was fourth at 196.250, Penn State fifth at 195.125 and New Hampshire scored 193.900.
“I’m ecstatic and am excited to finish my career at home with my team,” said senior All-American Caitlin Atkinson, who will close her collegiate career in Texas, her home state.
“We proved that it wasn’t just a fluke and that we can do this over and over again,” she said of the back-to-back appearances at nationals. “I’m really excited for my team to finish off strong and show what we got again. It’s really thrilling.”
Another senior, Lexus Demers, said, “To have this opportunity is incredible. We’re going to go to nationals with our heads held high and prove to everyone that we deserve to be back there.”
The Tigers needed a strong finish on their final two rotations to qualify for nationals and did it with a score of 49.400 on floor. Seniors Kait Kluz, Demers and Atkinson tied for first place in the event with scores of 9.900. Junior M.J. Rott and sophomore Abby Milliet scored 9.85 in the event.
Auburn opened the regional with a 49.125 on bars. Kluz, Milliet and freshman Taylor Krippner led the scoring with 9.850 totals. Caitlin Atkinson added a 9.8, while freshman Samantha Cerio led off the rotation with a 9.775.
The Tigers posted their lowest score of the night, a 48.850, on balance beam. Demers finished tied for third overall in the meet with a 9.875. Atkinson added a 9.8 and Milliet followed with a 9.750. Cerio finished her night with a 9.725 and junior Kullen Hlawek made her regional debut with a 9.7.
"I believe the team was feeling the stress on the first two events," Graba said. "The second bye was really good for us. We were able to go back and regroup. I knew we were confident and comfortable on floor. I think the team came out with a purpose to really turn it on. They knew they were capable of making it to nationals with the two events at the end.”
Kluz agreed with her coach. “The bye between beam and floor really helped us regroup,” she said. “We went back to the locker room and really relaxed and had fun. We came out with a lot of energy and being able to nail routine after routine was really exciting.”
Auburn closed out the meet on vault with a 49.150 and were led by Rott’s 9.9. Her score gave her first in the event. Atkinson and Demers each posted a 9.85, Krippner scored a 9.800 while sophomore Sarah Garcia and Kluz each totaled a 9.750 for the Tigers.
“I told the team that over the last four or five years we have worked hard to build a team that can make it to nationals,” Graba said. “You don’t have to be perfect to go to nationals and that’s really what we did today. We weren’t great today, but we can still come out of here with a victory. We’re moving on to nationals and that’s just a testament to how much talent we have and how much focus we will have.”
Atkinson finished the all-around in fifth with a 39.350.
The 2016 NCAA Gymnastics Championship is April 15-16 in Fort Worth, Texas, at the Fort Worth Convention Center.