April 23, 2010

By Paul D. Bowker
Special to NCAA.com

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- At the precise moment UCLA gymnast Elyse Hopfner-Hibbs finished her floor exercise routine Friday night, enthusiastic screams of "UC-LA! UC-LA!" echoed around the seating area at the Stephen C. O'Connell Center.

"I felt my teammates jumping around and going crazy before I even got up there," Hopfner-Hibbs said. "I knew something was going on."

Like, say, a national championship?

One minute later, smiling widely, Hopfner-Hibbs landed her final jump to complete a 9.95 performance. She bounced off the stage into a sea of UCLA gymnasts, and the University of Florida's home arena turned into a cheer-fest of Bruins blue. UCLA had won its sixth NCAA Division I Women's Gymnastic Championship, but its first since 2004.

For the Bruins, a team that considers legendary basketball coach John Wooden its mentor, it was a defining moment. Remember, this was a gymnastics program that once had five Olympians and won five national titles in eight years. Its head coach, Valorie [ CQ ] Kondos Field, says she was actually told by another coach that a "monkey" could have coached those squads.

"This championship means a lot more to me than the other five did," Kondos Field said, "because the other five came in such quick succession."

A Bruins bubble, they called it.

"The whole journey, looking back on the whole thing, is so excellent," said Anna Li, a senior who had three scores of 9.9 in four events. "We were our own Bruin bubble and we brought the Bruin bubble to Florida."

Did they ever.

UCLA, which had lost twice to Stanford during the regular season and once to 2009 national champion Georgia, arrived in Gainesville as the top seed in a 12-team field. They scored a semifinal-high 196.875 points on Thursday. Friday night, they scored 197.725.

UCLA scored at least 49.325 points in every event, and needed only to compete cleanly in the floor exercise to hold off runner-up Oklahoma (197.250 points) and third-place Alabama (197.225).

Alabama's Morgan Dennis placed fourth in the all-around results with 39.550 points, placing third in the vault behind two UCLA gymnasts and fourth in two other events.

Oklahoma, which hadn't ever finished higher than ninth in the national championships and placed just third in Thursday's semifinals, was a contender Friday. Hollie Vise, who has qualified for two events in the individual finals, scored a 9.925 in the floor exercise, and hit 9.9 in both the bars and balance beam.

Host Florida finished fifth with 197.000 points, and, as it did in Thursday's semifinal session when it finished runner-up to Alabama, the Gators struggled in a pair of events, the balance beam and uneven bars.

"They just seemed so up tight and caught up in the atmosphere of hosting," Florida coach Rhonda Faehn said. "We made errors here and there, and that really hurt us."

Even so, Ashanee Dickerson, a Florida freshman from Jacksonville, Fla., had the arena rocking when she finished her floor exercise routine with three somersaults and landed perfectly. Her score of 9.95 tied the best of the night, and produced a standing ovation from a crowd of 5,386 that was dominated by fans wearing Gator orange.

"Her floor was just unbelievable. She really had the crowd going," Faehn said. "She did phenomenal. She responded from last (Thursday) night's performance."

Dickerson also hit 9.9 in the vault, 9.850 in the bars and 9.875 on the balance beam. Thursday night, she fell on the bars.

Three other gymnasts also had 9.95s: UCLA's Brittani McCullough in the vault, Stanford's Carly Janiga in the bars and Alabama's Ashley Preiss on the balance beam.

UCLA came out strongly, scoring 49.475 on the vault, its first event. With Bruin gymnasts screaming encouragement from the holding area just behind the beginning area of the runway for the vault, McCullough hit her 9.95, and Li and Vanessa Zamarripa both hit 9.9.

Kondos Field still marvels at one attribute of her team this year; they didn't care which event was first.

"Our goal for tonight was to soak in every moment and that's what we did," Zamarripa said. "It feels great to know that at the end of the day, we did what we said we were going to do."

"We just had a blast the entire week," Hopfner-Hibbs said.

And the week isn't over just yet. Li and Zamarripa will both compete in two events in Saturday's individual finals; Hopfner-Hibbs will compete in the vault and McCullough will compete in the floor exercise.

UCLA 197.725
Oklahoma 197.250
Alabama 197.225
Stanford 197.100
Florida 197.000
Utah 196.225