April 21, 2010

By Paul D. Bowker
Special to NCAA.com

GAINESVILLE, Fla. - The NCAA Division I Women's Gymnastics Championships will bounce into uncharted territory when the three-day event opens Thursday at the University of Florida.

For the first time in 29 years of championships, its defending champion is sitting at home and out of the competition. Five-time national champ Georgia was squeezed out of the showcase event when the Bulldogs tied Oregon State for second place in the South Central Regional on April 10, and lost the tiebreaker.

That stunning result has opened up the title path to a 12-team field that includes top-seeded UCLA, a five-time national champ that has been left out the last two years, and host Florida, which is the No. 2 seed. Florida defeated Georgia in a dual meet, topped Georgia in the Southeastern Conference championships and won a regional at Salt Lake City.

"It's not just Georgia that is left out of the dance. There are a lot of great teams out there," UCLA coach Valorie [ CQ ] Kondos Field said.

"The top 12 teams in the country. It's going to be phenomenal gymnastics," Florida coach Rhonda Faehn said.

The event features eight 2008 Olympians and three from the 2004 Olympics, including Courtney McCool of Georgia, a silver medalist in artistic gymnastics for the USA. McCool, who won the NCAA floor exercise title in 2008, will compete in the balance beam and floor exercise in the individual competition.

The event begins Thursday at Florida's Stephen C. O'Connell Center with semifinal sessions at 1 p.m. and 7 p.m. EDT, in which the top three of six teams in each semifinal will advance to Friday night's Super Six final round. Individual preliminaries will also be held Thursday, with the top four in each event in each session advancing to Saturday's individual event finals.

If you're looking for an emotional favorite, then look no further than the Gators. Florida is hosting the finals for the third time, but the Gators have never won the championship. But they have finished third or fourth in each of the last four years. If the Gators won, they would become the fifth school to win the NCAAs the same year it hosted.

"Any team that's going to defeat Florida, they are going to have to be that much better," Alabama coach Sarah Patterson said. "We've hosted three (NCAAs), and we've won three."

In winning the SEC title, Florida topped the nation's top-ranked team (Alabama) at the time and defending national champ Georgia. Ashanee Dickerson was named SEC Freshman of the Year. Another freshman, Marissa King, has set new career highs 12 times this season.

"This team is really special from all the teams that I've coached in that they don't really look at all of the outer (elements) that they can't control. ... They just go out, have fun, do their job and it's really exciting," Faehn said.

For the first time ever, this event will crown not only a new team champion, but new individual champions in every event because Georgia's Courtney Kupets and LSU's Ashleigh Clare-Kearney won or shared all five individual titles last year as seniors.

The balance of the team field is aptly shown by Stanford, a No. 6 seed that knocked off UCLA twice (the Bruins' only other loss was to Georgia) and No. 10 seed Missouri, which won the South Central Regional over Georgia and Oregon State to claim its first-ever spot in the championships.

"It's history in the making for us," Missouri Coach Rob Drass said. "We're pretty thrilled to be here."

"I was here as an individual last year and it is a totally different feeling being here with my best friends," Missouri's Sarah Shire said. "We've been working together since August and we are really a close group."

Since 1996, only three schools -- Georgia, UCLA and Alabama -- have won NCAA team championships, but the addition of first-timer Missouri and the absence of the sport's five-time champ feeds the notion that parity is arriving in women's gymnastics.

"It's anybody's ballgame," Kondos Field said. "There are no favorites coming out of each (semifinal) session."

"There are definitely a group of teams that have come up tight against (favored) teams that are used to being here on a regular basis," said Utah co-head coach Megan Marsden. "More and more, I think once you're here, you feel like you've been one of the very lucky ones."

Alabama, a four-time NCAA champ, has made it to the final weekend of competition 27 consecutive years, but Patterson seemed quick with a sigh of relief after the No. 3-seeded Tide won the Central Regional in Lexington, Ky.

"I'm so proud of my kids," Patterson said.

"This has really been a sensational season. We'v enjoyed the journey and we're proud to be here at the national championship," she said.

Even more appreciative is UCLA's Kondos Field, who saw a team that won four national championships in five years suddenly fall completely out of the NCAA final field in 2008 and 2009.

"It was hard when we didn't make nationals. It was horrible," Kondos Field said.

The Bruins vaulted back to the top of the field as a top seed with a young team that has only one senior, Anna Li, the Pacific-10 Conference's uneven bars champion. Vanessa Zamarripa, a sophomore, won the vault at the Pac-10 championships.

"It's been four long years in the making, climbing our way back," Kondos Field said. "It's a struggle, it's a fight, it's really, really fun. We're going to have a blast."

TEAM SESSIONS

AFTERNOON SESSION
No. 1 seed UCLA
No. 4 Oklahoma
No. 5 Utah
No. 8 Oregon State
No. 9 LSU,
No. 12 Nebraska.

NIGHT SESSION
No. 2 seed Florida (host)
No. 3 Alabama
No. 6 Stanford
No. 7 Arkansas
No. 10 Missouri
No. 11 Michigan

INDIVIDUAL COMPETITORS

Arizona: Deanna Graham

Arizona State: Mary Atkinson

Auburn: Rachel Inniss

Boise State: Hannah Redmon

Denver: Brianna Artemev; Kelley Hennigan

Georgia: Courtney McCool

Illinois: Allison Buckley; Sarah Schmidt

Iowa: Rebecca Simbhudas

Kentucky: Whitney Rose

Michigan State: Nicole Curier

Minnesota: Alexis Russell

N.C. State: Taylor Seaman

Penn State: Sharaya Musser; Brandi Personett

Southern Utah: Elise Wheeler

Washington: Kristen Linton; Samantha Walior