By Greg Uptain
Special to The Tuscaloosa News
ST. LOUIS — The light of day Saturday didn’t make things any easier. The pain was still there. It was still reality.
The Alabama gymnastics team did not participate in Saturday night’s Super Six team final at the NCAA Championships, which was won by UCLA.
It was an odd sight, for sure, considering it was just the third time in the 26 years of the current format the Crimson Tide was not competing on the final day of the season.
“It hurts,” Alabama coach Dana Duckworth said. “It’s one where we have to say, OK what did we learn from this? What does our coaching staff learn? What do our athletes learn? Especially the returners.”
One of those returning gymnasts has a pretty good idea how they’ll use the lessons of a painful ending.
“We’re gonna use that motivation next year. Everybody who is going to return is gonna want it a little bit more now,” junior Ariana Guerra said. “Everybody needs to rest and recover and take the time to do what they need to do now, so that way, when we come back, we can be full in on what we need to do next year.”
Next year is not a phrase the Crimson Tide program normally has to utter while the current season was still in operation. They are aiming not to have that conversation quite as early next spring.
“It’s a learning experience for next year,” freshman Lexi Graber said. “We’ll take little things and fix them.”
In the immediate aftermath of Friday’s semifinal that saw Alabama finish fifth of six teams in their session, Duckworth gathered her returning athletes and had a message for them.
“I told them we’ve got to find a way not to have this feeling again because it is not a good feeling,” she said. “Sometimes, heartache like this is part of that journey. It doesn’t make it easy, but it’s part of the process.”
Despite the pain of not making the team final, all was not lost for Alabama this season. The Crimson Tide won a regional title for an NCAA-best 32nd time and made their 36th consecutive appearance at the NCAA Championships (one shy of Utah’s current streak of 37).
“Being second at SECs, winning that regional championship — which is always the most important meet of the year — we did some great things,” Duckworth said. “When you look back at our season, we used 12 or 13 gymnasts almost every single meet and I think that truly shows depth. It shows we’re sharing the wealth of talent on different events and I think that is something that will help us moving forward.”
Moving forward, the NCAA Championships will look different next year with just eight teams in the semifinals and four teams advancing to the final day. To get back there, the Crimson Tide will have to be better than they were in Friday’s semifinals.
“It only gets harder next year when there’s only four teams. It’s gonna be even more competitive,” Duckworth said. “I have no idea how it’s gonna turn out. I don’t think anyone really knows.”