April 23, 2010

By Paul D. Bowker
Special to NCAA.com

GAINESVILLE, Fla. - Led by a pair of 9.9 scores from Ashanee Dickerson and Marissa King, the University of Florida's women`s gymnastics team vaulted into the Super Six finals of the NCAA Div. I Women's Gymnastics Championships.

There can be no other way to describe it.

The Gators' team score of 49.425 on the vault, the highest score of 12 teams in Thursday's two semifinals sessions and the second best of the season for UF, rallied the Gators to a 196.775 total and into Friday's final round of the championships at the Stephen C. O'Connell Center. There, the Gators will attempt to become the fifth team in women's gymnastics history to win the championships that it is hosting.

The final round of team competition will begin at 6 p.m. EDT Friday. The individual finals will be held Saturday night.

Among those standing in the Gators' way to a first-ever national title: UCLA, the top seed, which had to overcome its own sluggish start in Thursday's afternoon session to score a semifinals-high 196.875 points, and No. 3 Alabama, which scored an impressive 196.775 points in the night session, leading the competition from start to finish.

"I'm so proud of our team," Alabama Coach Sarah Patterson said. "Our goal every year is to be on the floor the final night and have a chance to win the national championship."

Yet, there is one common theme virtually all of the teams shared Thursday: Nerves. It got so bad for UCLA that coach Valorie Kondos Field summoned her team to the locker room between rotations for a "little chat." Oklahoma Coach K.J. Kindler didn't relax until the final rotation, as the Sooners qualified for the Super Six for the first time in school history.

"I was nervous all day up until the final routine," OU Coach K.J. Kindler said. "I have a lot of faith in my team, but my feelings overcame me."

Florida fans gasped when freshman Ashanee Dickerson fell off the uneven bars.

"The pressure that people face to qualify is tremendous," Patterson said.

In fact, Stanford's Carly Janiga, who finished second to Alabama's Casey Jo Magee in the all-around results in the night session, was one athlete relieved that the qualifying is over.

"The Super Six is great," she said, "because there's nothing to qualify for."

Florida Coach Rhonda Faehn saw worried looks when the Gators struggled in their first two events, the bars and the balance beam, and found themselves in a fight with four other teams for the No. 2 or No. 3 spot behind Alabama.

"What you're dealing with here is a national championship. They want to do so well, so badly, sometimes it just gets in the way," Faehn said.

Those looks of concern turned to delight for the Gators when Dickerson produced a roar from the crowd by nailing a 9.9 in the floor exercise. Marissa King did even better, a 9.925. Then, both Dickerson and King hit 9.9 in the vault.

"We just went on the floor and said, `Let's have fun,'" King said.

Similarly, UCLA struggled in an afternoon session in which the Bruins topped Utah and Oklahoma. After their first two events, the Bruins headed to their locker room to talk things over.

Anna Li, a UCLA senior who placed among the top three in two events, said the locker room talk helped loosen up the team. Instead of smiles, there were nervous looks. The smiles returned.

"We went out and had fun," Li said.

"I'm kind of glad we struggled in the first few events," Kondos Field said, "because it's nice to be able to get that out of our system and move on."

Also surviving the semifinals was Oklahoma, which edged out Nebraska for the third and final spot out of the afternoon session, 196.550 to the Huskers' 196.175. The Sooners scored at least 49 points on all four events.

"This is my senior year and the first time my team is advancing. I am really excited," said OU gymnast Hollie Vise, who hit 9.9 in both the vault and floor exercise.

Although LSU, the No. 9 seed, was eliminated, Susan Jackson, a senior and the Southeastern Conference Gymnast of the Year, placed first in the all-around scores in the afternoon session, hitting at least 9.85 on every event. Her 9.95 on the vault, tying a personal best, was the top score of any gymnast on any of the events. Jackson qualified for the individual finals in vault and uneven parallel bars.

Casey Jo Magee of Arkansas, which was eliminated in the night session, won the balance beam with a score of 9.9, and also qualified for the individuals finals in the bars and floor exercise.