Alabama's Freshmen Could Determine How Gymnastics Team's Season Falls

Christopher Walsh

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — When it comes to University of Alabama gymnast Lexi Graber, there’s already a feeling of been there, done that.

As a junior, she’s competed in all the major venues in the rigorous Southeastern Conference. Last year, she was the league’s balance-beam champion and she finished second in the all-around.

But despite being in her third season with the Crimson Tide, and considered an established veteran in the program, there’s a part of her that still feels like a freshman. It’s been going by in the blink of an eye.

“It feels like I’ve been here for about a week,” she said.

It actually was for a pair of her new teammates when Alabama opened the season on January 10. The meet was just four days after classes began for the spring semester. Luisa Blanco and Ella Burgess had been with the team for just eight practices when they were inserted into the lineup at maybe the most non-friendly venue imaginable for the Crimson Tide, Auburn.

“Personally, I could not imagine coming in and having two weeks of experience at college and classes and all of a sudden competing before this big crowd at Auburn,” Graber said. “But I think the seniors and upperclassmen really helped them calm down before they got on there, and we helped them in practice, prepare as much as they could.

“I thought they did a really great job with handling the pressure.”

For an encore, Alabama only had to compete against the top-ranked team in the nation, Oklahoma, twice. First the Crimson Tide hosted the Sooners at Coleman Coliseum, and then a week later they squared off again along with Denver and Georgia at the Metroplex Challenge in Fort Worth, Texas, where the NCAA Championships will be held April 17-18.

Whatever the gymnastic equivalent of baptism under fire is, they faced it, along with fellow freshman Makarri Doggette, who thought about doing the same thing last year, enroll in the spring, but changed her mind.

She’s been a bright spot for the Crimson Tide thus far. During the home meet against the Sooners she scored 9.95 on the uneven bars, 9.90 on balance beam and 9.925 on floor exercise.

The others haven’t been as consistent yet, but collectively the trio’s biggest highlight so far was on beam against Oklahoma, when they were third-fourth-fifth in the lineup against the No. 1 Sooners. Burgess, who had fallen in the season opener at Auburn, came back and scored 9.85, putting Alabama in position to hit a big team score. Doggette followed with her 9.90, and Blanco scored a team high 9.925.

“That’s a good start,” Crimson Tide coach Dana Duckworth said about their  opening meets.

Alabama gymnast Luisa Blanco
Freshman Luisa Blanco during her first home meet at Coleman ColiseumAlabama Athletics

Consequently, it’s already apparent that while Alabama does have some key upperclassmen whom it will be relying upon as the season progresses, like Shallon Olsen, Emily Gaskins and Graber, the freshmen might eventually determine the Crimson Tide’s fate as it tries to get back to the sports' top tier.

Overall, Alabama has had 13 gymnasts compete through the first three weekends, with each contributing at least three routines. The freshmen have been in the lineup for 23 routines, the most of any class. The juniors have contributed 17, and the seniors and sophomore have both had 16.

Moreover, freshman Mati Waligora, a three-time member of the USA Junior Olympic National team, has yet to make her Crimson Tide debut.

“The first meet is obviously the most nerve-wracking one,” said Doggette, who has been the Crimson Tide’s anchor on bars, which has been Alabama’s best event so far.

“I think they’re handling it very well, probably better than I could have.”

Overall, Alabama heads to LSU on Friday (7:30 p.m. CT, SEC Network), ranked No. 7 nationally with a 196.667 average. That’s down a little following last week’s 196.575 at the Metroplex Challenge. It’s probably not a coincidence that none of the freshmen had one of the top event scores as the Crimson Tide finished tied for second.

In terms of event rankings, the Crimson Tide is fifth on the uneven bars (49.350), ninth on floor exercise (49.233), 11th on vault (49.075) and 14th on balance beam (49.008).

With Alabama still looking to win its first meet of the season, LSU enters the meet ranked sixth overall, and will likely have the advantage of a large crowd at the Maravich Center (not only are 2,000 bobble heads of 2017 and 2019 bars champion Sarah Finnegan being given out, but 60-plus alumni of the program will be recognized). The Tigers have won the last five regular-season meetings between the programs, and 10 overall.

After that, the Crimson Tide’s schedule does get a little more favorable until Alabama visits Florida on Feb. 21, and wraps up the regular season at home against Georgia on March 7.

By then everyone figures to be a little more acclimated, just in time for the postseason.

“We know what we’re capable of,” Graber said.