Lora Leigh Frost and the Crimson Tide head to the SEC championships.
The SEC Gymnastics Championship serves as a national championship meet warmup again.
Six of the nation’s top-15 teams, including four in the top-six, are featured in Saturday’s event at the Birmingham Jefferson Convention Center Arena.
Last year’s national champion Florida headlines ranked No. 1 in the nation, with No. 2 LSU, No. 4 Alabama and No. 6 Georgia capable of victory. All four teams are in the second session of the day at 6 p.m.
Florida and Alabama have had a lock on this meet the last five years with the Crimson Tide winning in 2009 and 2011, while the Gators have won the other years.
“For the last six years, this has been the best preparation putting our conference in a position to be successful at he NCAA championships,” Alabama coach Sarah Patterson said. “If we compete here you’ll do well at the national championships. You can finish fourth at the SEC and still win the NCAAs.”
The first session contains two ranked teams with No. 12 Auburn and No. 15 Arkansas. Missouri and Kentucky complete the group.
“We are excited to get to the SEC championships,” Auburn coach Jeff Graba said. “It’s one of the premier events in the nation. We have a young team and had a lot of adversity. We have the talent to compete there. We are excited to get there and show what we are made of. The competition is a dog fight. It prepares our girls for the postseason better than any event possible.”
The second session is a high concentration of talent since three of the five programs to ever win national championships come from the SEC with Alabama, Georgia and Florida. The SEC has won eight of the last nine NCAA titles, including the last three. The Crimson Tide last won in 2011 and 2012.
Alabama defeated Florida and Georgia at home this season, and lost to LSU on the road. While this may be consider a neutral site, it’s in the Crimson Tide’s backyard.
“Everybody beat up on each other,” Patterson said. “I just feel the team is confident and we are getting better with each meet. I feel like that first loss at LSU helped propel our team and move us forward. So my feeling is to be the best at the end of the season.”
Alabama has won seven SEC tournaments with the last being in 2011. There have been 57 individual titles, including Diandra Milliner‘s floor routine last year that scored a 9.950.
This is the sixth time the conference meet has been in Birmingham. The last time was in 2011 when Alabama won. The Crimson Tide has won the meet in Birmingham twice and came in second three times.
“The challenge for us is not holding back,” Milliner said. “We don’t want to get tight in the SECs because if we tighten up it will hold us back from what we can do. We have to stay focused on what we are doing on the floor.”
The conference coaches voted to have the event in Birmingham this year because the national championships will be at the same site on April 18-20.
Being able to compete there four weeks earlier will help the teams that qualify.
“Th competition on the (raised) podium and exposure to the equipment, it prepares us to be the best,” Patterson said. “That’s why the conference has been successful. (Being in Birmingham) was the best move for all of us. Everything will be the same. We’ll have a dry run.”
Eight of the nation’s top-10 all-around performers are in the meet, including the top three in Florida’s Bridget Sloan, LSU’s Rheagan Courville and Arkansas’ Katherine Grable.
Alabama is ranked third nationally on the balance beam, fourth on the vault, sixth on the floor exercise and eighth on the uneven bars.
Kim Jacob and Katie Bailey are tied at No. 20 in the all-around. Jacob is ranked 14th and Aja Sims 18th on the balance beam. Lauren Beers is ranked seventh on the vault and Milliner is ninth.
While the meet carries serious bragging rights for the conference, it’s also the last event where scores are calculated into the regional qualifying scores that go into team rankings that determine regional seeding.
“This is the meet we all want to win,” junior Kaitlyn Clark said.
Regional destinations will be determined for the teams after this meet with Alabama and Auburn both going on the road. NCAA qualifications happen at the regional with a top two finish.
“It’s not the (SEC) meet that propels you to the NCAA championships, so it’s the bragging rights (on the line),” Patterson said. “It’s the SEC championship and it’s the ring.”