BIRMINGHAM, Ala. ----- The No. 3 Georgia Gym Dogs came through when it mattered most on Saturday night as they scored a 49.575 in the final rotation to win their 12th SEC gymnastics title (197.025) before 7,023 fans at Bartow Arena in Birmingham, Ala.
For the Gym Dogs it was their second SEC title in as many years and their sixth in seven years. Sophomore Marline Stephens was the star of the evening for Georgia as she won both the SEC vault (9.95) and floor exercise (9.95) titles.
Finishing in second place for the second consecutive season was Alabama (196.925), followed by Florida (196.425), LSU (196.225) and tying for fifth with a 194.325 were Auburn and Kentucky.
"I am so proud of this team," said Georgia coach Suzanne Yoculan, who was named the SEC's Coach of the Year for the second straight year and the fifth time in her career following the meet. "I would have been proud of them even if they took second. They have so much fight in them and they are so scrappy. This team was never going to quit."
The Gym Dogs entered the fourth and final rotation trailing the Alabama Crimson Tide, which ended its competition on a bye, by 49.375. The Gym Dogs had scored at least a 49.375 seven times this season, but only one time away from home. Sophomore Loren Simpson got the Gym Dogs off to a solid start as she scored a 9.85. After a 9.875 from freshman Michelle Emmons, the Gym Dogs started to pour it on as three of the final four performers - senior Talya Vexler (9.9), sophomore Sierra Sapunar (9.9) and Stephens (9.95) - scored a 9.9 or higher to secure the championship for Georgia.
"It was the magic of the (event) draw tonight," said Yoculan following the meet. "It would have been hard for us to score a 49.375 or higher on any other event in the final rotation."
Despite not having junior Cassie Bair in the lineup, who was forced to miss the meet due to a patella dislocation in her right knee, the Gym Dogs still managed a respectable 49.225 in the first rotation of the evening, the vault. Georgia hit all six of its routines led by Stephens' 9.95. Also scoring a 9.85 or higher for the Gym Dogs were sophomores Chelsa Byrd (9.875) and Cory Fritzinger (9.85). Junior Breanne Rutherford, who was subbing for Bair, came through with a 9.75.
The Gym Dogs crept to within less than a tenth of the Crimson Tide, who led after the second rotation (98.625-98.575), after scoring a 49.325 on the bars. Leading the Gym Dogs were Byrd and Sapunar, who both tallied a 9.9. For the latter it was her first time competing on bars this season. Also posting a solid score for Georgia was sophomore Kinsey Rowe, who was competing in a meet for the first time since Jan. 18 when she suffered a foot/ankle injury at Alabama. Also chipping in a pair of 9.825s were Fritzinger and senior Elieen Diaz.
The Gym Dogs encountered some problems in what has been one of their best events this season as they were only able to score a 48.975 on the balance beam, which was the first time they failed to score higher than a 49.0 in their last six meets. Georgia was paced in the event by Sapunar, who recorded a 9.9. Emmons was the only other Gym Dog to score higher than a 9.8 (9.825). Fritzinger, last year's SEC beam champion, struggled and only scored a 9.7, while Rutherford, who was subbing for Bair in the event, scored 9.775.
The Gym Dogs return to action in two weeks (April 6) when they travel to a site to be announced for the NCAA Regional.