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January 11, 2013

No. 1 UA gymnastics team opens season at Missouri

TUSCALOOSA | The University of Alabama gymnastics team gathered Monday night in the apartment of Kayla Williams and Lora Leigh Frost and watched UA's football team do what the Crimson Tide gymnasts had done last April.

There's a friendly rivalry between Alabama's two most successful programs, and the competitiveness is at an all-time high with both teams having won back-to-back national championships.

"We did it first," junior Marissa Guttierez said. "Just saying."

The gymnastics team opens its 2013 season today on the road against No. 21 Missouri, and will attempt to do what neither they nor the football team has ever done: win three national championships in a row.

"It's all about focusing on starting over from scratch and then building from that point," Alabama coach Sarah Patterson said. "From that standpoint, I'm very excited about the meet coming up. Because I think we need to have some competition."

With such high expectations comes the intense pressure of being two-time national champions. Alabama, which was voted preseason No.1 in the coaches' poll, dealt with similar expectations last year coming off of one title, but gunning for three in a row will test the Crimson Tide's mental makeup like never before.

"We definitely have a target on our back," senior Ashely Priess said.

Such has become the standard at Alabama, where championships are the goal every year. The walls of the practice facility were repainted to include the accomplishments of last year's team. Videos in team offices and meeting rooms show highlights of the last two season's triumphs.

The Crimson Tide is always reminded of its celebrated past, but focusing on the present is the only way to ensure success.

"Something that we really try to hone in on is to whom much is given, much is expected," Priess said. "We're incredibly blessed to be part of this program. There's such a standard of excellence that's already established and has been throughout each class that has come through the program."

Priess will unquestionably lead the quest for three straight. A fifth-year senior, she decided to return for her final year of eligibility in 2013 and finish a masters degree in sports management.

She missed the 2011 season after undergoing surgery on both of her ankles. She was forced to watch from the sidelines as Alabama won the national championship in 2011, but she returned with a vengeance in 2012.

Priess received first-team All-America honors on balance beam and second-team on uneven bars and all-around. And with the 2012 national championship on the line, she scored a 9.95 on balance beam on the last routine of the championship night to clinch the title.

"There was something about the experience and the journey with these girls that I would be crazy not to do that again," Priess said.

Gutierrez said Priess' impact was felt from the moment the coaches announced her return.

"She leads in so many different ways and is so good at what she does," Gutierrez said. "Not only on the apparatus. I like to observe her and just see what she does."

Behind Priess, Alabama will field one the most veteran teams it has had in Patterson's recent memory.

With Priess' return, the Crimson Tide only has to replace Geralen Stack-Eaton from its regular rotation. It returns 20 of its 24 routines from the NCAA Championships.

Fellow seniors Gutierrez and Ashley Sledge will anchor the deep Alabama lineup as Patterson manages the stress on Priess' fragile ankles. Gutierrez was an All-American on vault and floor, while Sledge received the same honor on bars. Juniors Sarah DeMeo and Kim Jacob also received All-America honors as sophomores.

And a deep sophomore class that got its feet wet as freshmen last year is ready for an increased role in the rotation. Kayla Williams was a second-team All-American on balance beam as a freshman, Kaitlyn Clark competed on uneven bars in all 14 meets last season and Lora Leigh Frost filled in on floor exercise when needed.

"The freshman class last year, they were talented," Gutierrez said. "And this year, they have completely blossomed."

They'll be joined by two new faces, freshmen Carly Sims and Lauren Beers. Patterson called both "powerful athletes on vault and floor."

But the Crimson Tide will need all of its veteran experience as it navigates one of the most difficult schedules in the country. Alabama will face the remaining three of the top four teams, and will face ranked opponents in its other seven meets.

It starts with Missouri today and ends with a potential trip to the NCAA Championships in Los Angeles in April. The meet will be Missouri's first as a Southeastern Conference school. It will also be the Tigers' pink meet, where both schools will wear pink in support of breast cancer awareness. Alabama is undefeated in pink.

While a lot of the faces remain from 2012, Alabama is in the process of building a new team that will define its own legacy.

"It's only the second week of January," Priess said. "We're not going to be at our best. We just have to keep going. It's a marathon, not a sprint."


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