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Auburn's Julie Dwyer returns after the Southeastern Conference named her its freshman of the year last season.
AP Photo by Todd Van Emst
Auburn's Julie Dwyer returns after the Southeastern Conference named her its freshman of the year last season.

A little less heat for AU
After hosting nationals, Tigers' gymnasts feel less pressure to advance

By Bradley Handwerger
DAILY Sports Writer 340-2462

AUBURN — Auburn gymnastics coach Jeff Thompson would love to make it to Corvallis, Ore., for the NCAA championships at the end of April.

To him, there's really no pressure in that task. Not after last year.

"There was definitely more pressure last year," said Thompson, the Tigers' sixth-year coach. "You never want to host and not be in it."

Thompson is referring to the fact that for the first time in school history, the NCAA held the gymnastics national finals at Auburn's Beard-Eaves-Memorial Coliseum.

Auburn became just the third school to host the nationals and not qualify for the meet since the NCAA began sponsoring a gymnastics championships in 1982.

Minnesota accomplished that 1992, and Boise State did it in 2000.

So far in 2006, Auburn is 2-4, though the four losses came in the Super Six Challenge, a season-opening meet against five top-12 opponents.

Auburn finished .575 behind meet-winner Alabama, last season's national runner-up.

The Tigers won their only other meet this year, a duel meet with West Virginia.

Sophomore Julie Dwyer, one of the team's few returning gymnasts, said the Super Six will go a long ways in helping Auburn reach its goal this season.

"That was some of the best teams in the nation that we competed against," Dwyer said. "We ended up fifth place, but we were .575 behind first place. We can definitely build on that."

And while that's a good start to the season, she said, there's still less pressure right now to go to Oregon than the team faced a year ago when hosting.

"As far as this year, we just have to go out and hit our routines and we know we can make it," said Dwyer, last season's Southeastern Conference freshman of the year. "Last year it was so much pressure because it was here in front of the home crowd. Now we can relax and have fun and we'll be there at the end of the year."

Yet, it's unmistakable that this year's team learned a great deal from last year.

Karmen Pinckney didn't make it to the national finals in any event in 2005. Even though it's only one year, the sophomore said it was a great learning experience for her and her teammates.

"There's a lot less pressure but we also decided not to put the pressure on ourselves just for that reason," Pinckney said. "It didn't work last year."

It would have been great for Auburn to be able to compete last season in the finals while hosting, Thompson said.

Not making the meet, though, gave the Tigers a chance to watch from the stands. They learned something, he said.

"I think that's why we're as good as we are now," Thompson said. "A lot of the girls went and watched and afterwards, it was like, 'We're just as good as those teams. Some of those teams may have one or teams better than our best girl, but as a team we're as good as those teams.' "

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