TUSCALOOSA, Ala. - Alabama All-American Ashley Priess, who clinched the Crimson Tide's sixth NCAA Gymnastics Championship, last Saturday with a 9.95 on the balance beam, will return to the lineup next season as a fifth-year senior UA head coach Sarah Patterson announced Tuesday afternoon.
"We're just very excited, because as I said to the team at the end of our meeting on Monday, in Ashley, we have the number one recruit in the country coming in," Patterson said.
Priess redshirted her junior year after surgery on both ankles sidelined her for the season. She was in the stands watching when Alabama won the 2011 NCAA Championships. This season was a different story. She was in the Tide's lineup from the first meet to the very end, winning 14 event titles during the dual-meet season, and leading the Crimson Tide to its first undefeated Southeastern Conference regular season slate in more than 20 years.
"After the season began, Ashley and I had a conversation about the possibility of her coming back," Patterson said. "We talked about it, but I didn't want anything to take away from her senior year. I wanted her to be that senior who went through the ceremony at the end with her classmates, and however the championship season finished up, she had no regrets on her senior year."
A vital component in Alabama's sixth national championship, both as an athlete and a leader, her last routine in the NCAA Super Six Team Finals on Saturday was the stuff of legend, pushing Alabama past the Florida Gators by a mere .075.
"After the national championships, yes, it could have been a great finish, to just say 'I'm done, that's best way to end.'" Priess said. "But I love it; I love competing and everything about Alabama gymnastics, so I didn't want to pass up the opportunity to do it again."
A five-time All-American prior to ankle surgery, Priess earned three All-America honors this season. That performance earned her the athletics department's Comeback Award at Monday night's awards ceremony. Earlier that day, she and Patterson shared the news with her teammates that she would extend that comeback into the 2013 season.
"I think everyone was extremely surprised; there was a lot of screaming," Priess said. "Everyone was just awesome about it. It was nice to feel so appreciated and so loved by everyone. "
After finishing her undergraduate degree last December, Priess is currently pursuing a master's degree in marketing and is slated to graduate in May. The two-time Scholastic All-American earned a perfect 4.0 grade point average and became the first UA gymnast to graduate and start work on a master's while still competing. She was also part of the Tide's leadership team this season
"Where can a coach find an athlete with the experiences that Ashley has had?" Patterson said. "Talent is one thing, but leadership and the maturity that she has gained through these four years makes her such a remarkable competitor and team member. We're getting the complete package back next year."
Priess and the rest of the 2012 NCAA Champion Crimson Tide will be honored this Saturday at 6 p.m. in a celebration hosted by the athletics department in Coleman Coliseum. The event is open to the public and admission is free.