Title chase more open than ever
Just ‘hitting routines’ will not be enough to grab team crown
If there ever has been a time that NCAA women’s gymnastics is ready to hand the crown to a first-time champion, that time is now.
Throughout the previous 29 years that the NCAA has sponsored a championship meet, only four programs have taken home the trophy. Georgia has claimed 10 titles, Utah follows with nine, defending champion UCLA has won six and Alabama has captured four crowns.
|NCAA Championships Info|
|Watch Live: Friday, Saturday, Sunday|
|AAI Award: Michigan's Botterman wins|
|Repeat champions?: UCLA aims for another title|
|How they got here: Ready to compete|
|History lesson: Past winners|
|When in Cleveland: Championships info|
This season, while Florida has been ranked No. 1 for the majority of the season, the Gators have not always come out on top, especially in the weeks leading up to nationals. The Gators placed second at Southeastern Conference Championships behind Alabama, and then were beaten by Arkansas for the second time this year, placing second to the Razorbacks at the NCAA Denver Regional.
“We’ve had a very good season, and this is a strong team, but obviously, we had a challenging regional championship,” Florida head coach Rhonda Faehn said.
“We’re grateful that we advanced. It shows that we can’t take anything for granted. We just did not have the focus or energy level needed at regionals. With so many teams as strong as they are these days, we could have been sitting at home.”
Faehn isn't alone in that belief.
“The field is wide open,” UCLA head coach Valorie Kondos Field said. “At the beginning of the season, everyone was saying it was Florida’s meet to lose, and I would still imagine that if they put it all together, they will be a tough team to beat. But I think I can say that about a handful of teams out there. It’s not going to take just hitting (routines) … it’s going to take hitting lights out.”
Oklahoma, Oregon State, Florida and Michigan – seeded third through sixth according to national qualifying scores behind Alabama and UCLA – are all legitimate contenders for the team title. Oklahoma, which finished second to the Bruins last season, along with Oregon State and Michigan each won their respective regionals on April 2. Florida missed winning its regional by an eighth of a point.
“Being at a neutral site in Cleveland, and the fact the parity across the country continues to rise, there are a number of teams that have a legitimate shot to win a national title,” Michigan head coach Bev Plocki said. “That’s exciting for us because we’re going into this championship peaking at the right time. Our athletes are feeling good about our performance and we’re very excited about nationals.”
“There are so many great teams out there, and we know it’s going to be a fight all the way to the end,” Oregon State head coach Tanya Chaplin said, who led the Beavers to their first Pac-10 title since 1996 this season. “You saw that last year when Oklahoma took second, and that’s a team that isn’t one of those four. There are more and more teams challenging for that title.”
Although nine of 12 schools are returning from the 2010 NCAA Championships, and all-time leading trophy winner Georgia is back after a one-year absence, some fresh faces will be in Cleveland. Illinois will be making its second appearance at nationals and first since 2009, while Kent State – the co-host of the championship meet – advanced for the first time in school history.
“I think it’s healthy to get some new blood in there,” Plocki said. “Kent State was at our regional and it was such an exciting competition. When they came out on top, it was a dream-come-true for them, and I was excited to be able to see that happen.”
“It’s awesome for the sport,” Chaplin said. “That’s what we need to continue to grow our sport collegiately, and add new programs. Kent State, wow. They were a No. 6 seed and they are hosting nationals. There were a number of really strong programs that have made big steps for our sport overall this season. The more teams we have to vie for championships, the better it is. I know it makes our team stronger, because any weekend we could go against a team that has an opportunity to win.”
So, what will it take to take the title at the 2011 NCAA Women’s Gymnastics Championships? Hitting lights out? Line-up depth? A little luck?
Maybe a mix of everything.
“The key to being a championship-winning team is having three or four or more in each of the lineups that can score a 9.9 or above,” Faehn said. “Everybody has at least two really strong routines in their lineups that they can count on but the difference-maker is four of those athletes that can put it together all at the same time. The four teams that have won the national championship in the past, when they’ve won the title you look at their rosters and that’s exactly what they had.”
The NCAA Championships will be held at the Wolstein Center in Cleveland, Ohio, on April 15-17. Team semifinal and all-around competition will be conducted in two sessions Friday, April 15, at noon and 6 p.m. ET.
The top three teams from each semifinal will advance to the Super Six competition Saturday, April 16, at 4 p.m. ET. The top four individuals from each session in each event (plus ties) from the preliminary team and all-around competition will compete in the individual-event competition Sunday, April 17, at 1 p.m. ET.
Semifinal I: Arkansas, Oklahoma, UCLA, Michigan, Georgia, Illinois.
Semifinal: II: Nebraska, Oregon State, Alabama, Florida, Utah, Kent State.
|Schools listed in alphabetical order (appearances)|
|Alabama (29): The top-seeded team according to the national qualifying score (NQS), and fresh off winning an NCAA-record 26th regional title. Senior Kayla Hoffman, the SEC Gymnast of the Year and NCAA Central Region Gymnast of the Year, claimed first place on the all-around, vault, uneven bars and floor exercise in the Tuscaloosa Regional.|
|Arkansas (5): After winning its second-ever regional title by an eighth of a point against Florida, the Razorbacks are riding some momentum entering the championships. Junior Jaime Pisani, the 2011 NCAA South Central Region Gymnast of the Year, leads the Razorbacks with 27 titles, including the floor exercise crown (9.95) at the NCAA Denver Regional.|
|Florida (29): Ranked No. 1 most of the year, the Gators will look to put it all together for their first national title. Sophomore Ashanée Dickerson paced the Gators with 23 event titles, and was ranked among the top 11 in all four events, including a No. 1 ranking on floor.|
|Georgia (27): After missing nationals for the first time in 27 years last season, the Gym Dogs are back following a second-place finish behind UCLA at the Athens Regional. Senior Cassidy McComb, the SEC all-around winner, ranks fourth national in the event heading into nationals.|
|Illinois (2): While they may not boast a lengthy résumé, the Illini return four gymnasts who competed at the 2009 NCAA Championships, including Allison Buckley, the program’s first two-time All-American. Buckley has competed at nationals every year of her career, qualifying as an individual all-arounder in 2008 and last season on vault.|
|Kent State (1): The Golden Flashes are the Cinderella story of this year’s meet, qualifying out of the Ann Arbor Regional despite a No. 6 seed. Kent State will benefit from a hometown crowd as the school co-hosts the event at the nearby Wolstein Center. Seniors Christina Lenney and Christine Abou-Mitri are from Broadview Heights, Ohio, just 20 minutes from the venue.|
|Michigan (19): The Wolverines are riding high after posting their top two scores of the season in their last two meets to win the Big Ten title and the Ann Arbor Regional. NCAA Northeast Regional Gymnast of the Year Kylee Botterman has claimed 30 titles, including 11 all-around crowns this season.|
|Nebraska (20): After winning the Big 12 title for the first time since 2007, the Huskers notched a second-place finish at the NCAA Corvallis Regional to advance to nationals for the second consecutive season. Senior Erin Davis won the vault (9.875), and junior Lora Evenstad claimed the floor (9.90) at the regional meet.|
|Oklahoma (11): The Sooners are coming off a season-high score of 197.350 that won the Normal Regional title. Four different gymnasts earned individual regional titles, highlighted by Natasha Kelley’s victory on the uneven bars with a score of 9.95.|
|Oregon State (21): The Beavers advanced to nationals for the sixth consecutive year as they topped the 197-point mark for the third time this season, and second consecutive meet. OSU boasts the top-ranked team lineup on the uneven bars, while Leslie Mak is the nation’s No. 1 gymnast on the balance beam.|
|UCLA (27): Repeating will be tough, but don’t count out the Bruins, who are coming off a victory at the Athens Region after posting a 197.425 – the highest score of any regional team. Pac-10 Freshman of the Year Olivia Courtney earned a career-high 39.5 to win the all-around at regionals, while junior Elyse Hopfner-Hibbs was a close second with a mark of 39.475.|
|Utah (30): The Utes are the only program in NCAA history that has competed in every championship meet since 1982. Freshmen accounted for half of the Utes’ routines at regionals, including a pair of event titles by Nansy Damianova, who tied for first place on the vault and floor exercise with two 9.9 marks.|