University of Alabama gymnastics fans derive many benefits from hosting an NCAA Regional like the one at Coleman Coliseum on Saturday. The main one is seeing six stellar teams in action. But for the home fans, it is one more chance to see the Crimson Tide in action — and one more chance to see in person if Alabama can finally put together a solid four-event performance.

“Every team coming here has scored a 197,” Alabama coach Dana Duckworth said on Tuesday. “But I was asked earlier about who our biggest competition would be and my answer was, “I’d say ourselves.” We are still trying to become a great team, because great teams can do anything.”

Greatness seemed like a distant goal in January when, due to a combination of inexperience, injury and inconsistency, Alabama was struggling to score above the 196.0 mark. Duckworth and her staff stayed patient and improvement came, gradually. There still isn’t a star all-around performer on the roster — Kiana Winston is probably the closest but rarely competes on the vault —but performances have improved.

“We are such a different team than we were in January,” Duckworth said. “We wouldn’t have done our jobs if we were the same team.”

The improvement has been notable, although there is still room for more. In its last performance at the SEC Championships in St. Louis, Alabama performed at a championship  level in three events, only to struggle on the bars, normally a strength for this Crimson Tide team. The 48.95 score on that apparatus was .450 less than LSU’s score, or more than the eventual difference between first and second place.

The regional field coming to Tuscaloosa, particularly No. 7 Michigan, will present a strong challenge. Back in Alabama’s hazy January, the Wolverines beat the Crimson Tide 196.20 to 195.675 in Ann Arbor, which means that Saturday’s regional, at the risk of crowding together metaphors, could be a potential stepping stone — and a measuring stick.

Former Alabama gymnast Ashley Priess-Johnston, now an assistant coach at No. 23 Illinois, will be returning to Tuscaloosa. Add in the presence of Georgia, currently in a transitional phase as it looks to regain powerhouse status but still a traditional Alabama rival, plus the rest of the field, and the event — which will send two teams on to the NCAA Championships — has some fascinating subplots.

Duckworth says she will try to tune that out, as much as possible, for her team.
“You work all year tonight to this point,” she said. “In practice, you’re on autopilot now. You aim for quality over quantity. We are in our Bama bubble.

“But we talked about it last weekend. We said that we only have 21 days together as a team, as this team. That’s like a blink of an eye. I want them to find joy in that.

“It’s the regional meet, the biggest meet of the year so far. We are hosting. We are performing on equipment we know and are comfortable with. We are starting on the floor, which gives our crowd a chance to get excited. So we want to win every moment of it that we can.”

Reach Cecil Hurt at cecil@tidesports.com or 205-722-0225.

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