By: Sean Cartell
SEC Digital Network
LITTLE ROCK – That gymnastics teams from the Southeastern Conference have claimed 16 NCAA Championships, including seven of the last eight, is no coincidence. The consistent strength of the league’s now eight gymnastics programs, the unique nature of the annual conference championship and the fierce weekly competition have combined to long position the teams of the SEC among the nation’s elite.
That dominance will be on full display on Saturday beginning at 2 p.m. CT at Verizon Arena in Little Rock, Ark., when the eight teams of the SEC collide for the 2013 SEC Gymnastics Championship.
“Our conference is the strongest in the country and it makes us all stronger going against each other,” Arkansas co-head coach Mark Cook said. “It’s exciting to be part of that. I think that the strength is in all of us and we bring out the best in each other.”
Saturday’s meet will feature seven teams ranked in the top-20 nationally, including four of the nation’s top-six squads. The event boasts the two-time defending NCAA Champion (Alabama) and last year’s national runner-up (Florida). Additionally, of the nation’s top-20 team scores recorded this season, 12 came from SEC programs, including eight of the top 11.
The Gators enter the meet as the nation’s top-ranked team, marking the 16th time an SEC team has brought a No. 1 ranking into the SEC Gymnastics Championship.
Just how tough is it to win an SEC Championship?
No league team has won back-to-back conference team titles since Georgia won three in a row from 2004-06.
Kentucky head coach Tim Garrison, who spent five years as an assistant at Nebraska and helped the Huskers to two Big 12 Conference Championships, regularly faced great competition in his previous job, but says nothing compares to the SEC.
“The strength of this conference is second to none,” Garrison said. “We’ve obviously competed against every single team in the SEC this season. It makes sense to your kids when you say you’ve got to bring your expectation level up because you’re going against the best teams in the country week in and week out in the SEC competition slate. It definitely helps us being in the SEC.”
The most unique facet of the SEC Gymnastics Championship is that it is the only such meet in the country to be contested on podium. In fact, the SEC and the NCAA Gymnastics Championship meets are the only two women’s collegiate gymnastics meets to annually be contested on podium.
The 2013 campaign will mark the eighth consecutive year that the SEC Gymnastics Championship will take place on podium.
“We’re the only conference in the country that is able to do this on the podium,” said Alabama head coach Sarah Patterson, who has led her team to six NCAA team titles, including two consecutive. “I think one of the reasons that we are so tremendously successful in our conference is that, first of all, our conference competition and schedule prepares us for NCAAs. You put us on podium, give us that practice day in that environment and then we get to compete in that environment, I think it puts the Southeastern Conference at a distinct advantage by the time we get to NCAAs.”
Florida head coach Rhonda Faehn, who competed as a student-athlete at UCLA and served as an assistant coach at both Maryland and Nebraska, echoed Patterson’s sentiments, noting the significance of competing on podium at the SEC Championship and how well it prepares the league’s student-athletes for the national championship.
“It’s an absolutely incredible experience,” Faehn said. “There is a different feel for our athletes when they’re on podium and the experience is different. The fact that our conference is able to provide a podium speaks volumes for the SEC, both financially and in giving us the backing to help our conference be the most prepared for the NCAA Championships, and that says a lot.”
Georgia’s first-year head coach Danna Durante, who has served as both the head coach at Cal and as an assistant coach at Nebraska, has been a part of numerous major conference championships, but knows well the edge competing on podium provides the SEC.
“This absolutely puts the SEC at a distinct advantage for the NCAA Championships,” Durante said. “From a media perspective and the excitement and the tough competition, all of these teams are incredibly talented and well-coached. You are at a much better place when you come out of this meet. I have been a part of the Pac-12 and the Big 12 and those conferences do a great job but, no question, the SEC is leading the pack.”
The SEC also is the only major conference that contests its gymnastics championship at a neutral site, having moved the championship off-campus beginning with the 2001 edition of the event.
“The neutral site concept is great because I think it does lend fairness,” LSU head coach D-D Breaux said. “I think the level of intensity and focus makes this a premiere event. The focus that the conference has made with the off-campus sites and also the tremendous commitment to the podium adds so much to this competition.”
The SEC Gymnastics Championship, which in 2013 returns to Little Rock for the second time in its history, features a two-session format – determined by seeding based on NCAA regional-qualifying scores – for the first time. The league’s five through eight seeds compete in Saturday’s afternoon session, which begins at 2 p.m. CT, while the top four seeds compete in the evening session, beginning at 6 p.m. CT.
“Our conference is so strong that, even with two sessions, I think that it is important that all of the teams are included in the SEC Championship,” Patterson said. “For the eight teams that we have in our conference, I feel like we are going to hopefully have at least six teams in the NCAA Championships later on in April. Being a member of the Southeastern Conference, it’s all about competing for pride.”