Amy Farnum, NCAA.com
As the New Year rapidly approaches collegiate gymnasts all over the nation will be fine-tuning their routines to prepare for the 2011 season. Competition will heat up right from the start as the first weekend of action offers a handful of Top 10 matchups – No. 1 UCLA at No. 5 Utah, and No. 3 Florida versus No. 10 Nebraska on Jan. 7, and the Pac-10 Showcase on Jan. 9, featuring three Top 10 squads. Here’s an in-depth look at the Top 10 teams in the GymInfo Preseason Coaches’ Poll:
No. 1 UCLA
The 2010 NCAA Champions is the favorite to finish in the top spot once again with 15 gymnasts returning from last year’s squad, however, the Bruins’ line-up took a hit in the preseason when U.S. National Team member Vanessa Zamarripa suffered a season-ending Achilles tendon tear. Zamarripa was the NCAA vault champion and Pac-10 Gymnast of the Year in 2010. The Bruins still boast the 2010 NCAA Floor Exercise Champion Brittani McCullough, and three more All-Americans in senior Niki Tom and juniors Aisha Gerber and Elyse Hopfner-Hibbs. UCLA also welcomes a star-studded freshman class featuring 2008 Olympic silver medalist Samantha Peszek, U.S. National Team member Olivia Courtney and two-time Canadian all-around champion Sydney Sawa. The Bruins will be tested immediately as they travel to the perennial national contender No. 5 Utah on Jan. 7, and then return to Pauley Pavilion to host the Pac-10 Showcase on Jan. 9. Six of the league’s seven squads are ranked in the Top 25.
No. 2 Alabama
Despite losing four All-American seniors to graduation and junior All-American Ashley Priess to ankle surgery, the well-respected Crimson Tide will look to live up to a No. 2 billing in 2011. Alabama’s roster consists of nine returnees and seven freshmen as it looks to replace 14 of 24 routines from a squad that finished third nationally last year. Priess will possibly return to the line-up later in the season after she recovers from surgery. Junior Geralen Stack-Eaton, a first-team All-American in the all-around, vault and balance beam, and senior All-American Kayla Hoffman (uneven bars) will lead the Tide against 11 nationally-ranked teams on this year’s schedule. Alabama hosts No. 14 Penn State to start the season on Jan. 7.
No. 3 Florida
Five returning All-Americans will help the Gators compete amongst the nation’s elite once again this season as they look to improve upon a fifth-place finish from 2010. Sophomore Ashanée Dickerson, the reigning Southeastern Conference Freshman of the Year, posted All-American finishes on the vault and floor exercise last season, while classmate Marissa King claimed All-American honors in the all-around, vault, balance beam and floor exercise in 2010. Maranda Smith, a four-time All-American, is back for a rare sixth season of eligibility, and is one of just two seniors on the young Gator squad. The Gators are the defending SEC Champions and have won six straight NCAA Regional titles. They will host No. 10 Nebraska on Jan. 7 to open the 2011 season.
No. 4 Oklahoma
After earning second-place and qualifying for the program’s first Super Six at last year’s NCAA Championships, the Sooners have been voted to their highest preseason ranking in school history. Two-time All-American Megan Ferguson and 2010 Big 12 Newcomer of the Year Natasha Kelley will play key roles as the Sooners look to claim their fourth straight league title and continue to build the momentum from the program’s best season in history while replacing All-American Holly Vise, who finished as the runner-up on the uneven bars and floor exercise in 2010. Oklahoma opens the season by hosting No. 11 Arkansas on Jan. 7.
No. 5 Utah
The Utes must replace half of their routines from last season’s NCAA Super Six squad as only five gymnasts return from the 2010 team that finished sixth in the nation. Senior Kyndal Robarts, a two-time first-team All-American, was Utah’s MVP in 2010 after placing fifth on the beam at last year’s nationals, while junior Stephanie McAlister earned second-team All-American honors of the bars in 2010. Seven freshmen led by former Canadian Olympian Nansy Damianova and former U.S. National Team member Corrie Lothrop will look to make an immediate impact for the Utes. Utah, which set the NCAA regular season attendance record in 2010, will host defending national champion UCLA on Jan. 7 in its first of seven meets against Top 10 squads this season.
No. 6 Stanford
The Cardinal lost four seniors to graduation, including 2009 NCAA Champion Carly Janiga (uneven bars), but will rely on the leadership of seniors Shelley Alexander, Danielle Ikoma and Allyse Ishino as Stanford vies for its fourth Super Six appearance in five years. Stanford also welcomes a freshman class that includes 2008 Australian Olympian Shona Morgan and Canadian all-around champion Kristina Vaculik. The Cardinal begins 2011 at the Pac-10 Showcase at UCLA on Jan. 9.
No. 7 Georgia
The Gym Dogs’ streak of 26 straight NCAA Championship appearances and five consecutive national championships was broken last year, but Georgia will look to start a new streak in 2011 with nine returning gymnasts from last season, including SEC Champions Kat Ding (bars) and Hilary Mauro (vault). The Gym Dogs will face seven foes ranked in the preseason Top 12, and will open at No. 16 Denver with BYU and Air Force on Jan. 8.
No. 8 Oregon State
The Beavers will look to extend their streak of five NCAA Championship appearances after finishing eighth in 2010 with a young squad that features reigning Pac-10 Freshman of the Year Makayla Stambaugh, who was a first-team All-American in the floor exercise. Two-time All-American Jen Kesler and 2008 Australian Olympian Olivia Vivian will also provide leadership for the Beavers. OSU hosts No. 12 LSU to kick off 2011 and then travels to the Pac-10 Showcase on Jan. 9.
No. 9 Michigan
The Wolverines were picked to win a fifth straight Big Ten title with nine letterwinners and five All-Americans returning in 2011. Senior Kylee Botterman earned her fifth All-American honor with a seventh-place finish on the vault last season, while sophomore Natalie Beilstein took home first-team All-American honors on the floor in her rookie year. The Wolverines open the season at instate rival Michigan State in a quad meet with Iowa and Western Michigan on Jan. 7.
No. 10 Nebraska
Nine letterwinners return from last year’s seventh-place team, which was Nebraska’s first NCAA Championship team since 2007. All-Americans Lora Evenstad and Brittany Skinner both earned first-team honors on vault in 2010. The Huskers will open the season with a tough match-up as they travel to No. 3 Florida on Jan. 7.