UCLA Athletics
UCLA's Peszek

Amy Farnum, NCAA.com

Defending national champion and preseason No. 1 UCLA took a big hit when U.S. National Team member and last year’s NCAA vault champion Vanessa Zamarripa suffered a season-ending Achilles tendon tear in early December. But, for a team with UCLA’s vast depth, the loss did not ruin the Bruins’ hopes of claiming a second consecutive NCAA title.

Then, last weekend, Olympic silver medalist Samantha Peszek fractured her foot, and will most likely be out for the first half of the season.

Despite two huge holes to fill in the line-up, head coach Valorie Kondos Field believes the predicament will only challenge the Bruins and make them stronger.

“Speaking from a purely philosophical coaching standpoint, Vanessa being out for the season and Sam being out for about a month will make our team a lot better with others having to step up than if those two incidents had not happened,” said Kondos Field. “As soon as Sam is back, she’ll score big. In the meantime, we’ve got a plethora of student-athletes that can score between a 9.7 and a 9.8 … but that’s not going to win a national championship.

“They are very capable of scoring 9.9 and higher, and I think with the understanding of the shoes they have to fill and the competition they will be able to see now, our team has the potential of being better in March and April than they would have been had this not happened.”

The Bruins have 16 of 24 routines returning from last year’s national championship squad, including 2010 Floor Exercise Champion Brittani McCullough and first-team All-American Elyse Hopfner-Hibbs. UCLA also returns Lichelle Wong, who missed NCAA Championships due to injury, while U.S. National Team member Olivia Courtney and two-time Canadian all-around champion Sydney Sawa join the squad as part of a highly-touted freshman class.

UCLA’s first weekend of competition will definitely be a tough one as the Bruins travel to No. 5 Utah to open the season on Jan. 7, and then return to Pauley Pavilion on Jan. 9 to host the Pac-10 Showcase, featuring all seven league teams.

“It’s not ideal to open with two of our biggest meets of the season in three days, but in order for us to have the Pac-10 Showcase and have it televised it had to be on that Sunday,” said Kondos Field. “In those first two meets, I want to look good, hit our routines and compete with confidence, regardless of where the scores fall. It would be great to come out and win those first two meets but that can’t be our focus or we’re just shooting ourselves in the foot.”

UCLA and Utah will meet for the ninth time in a season-opener, and eighth time in the last nine years. The Bruins won last year’s meeting, but the Utes lead 6-2 in the previous eight season-openers. It will be the last time the two teams will meet as non-conference foes in the regular season as Utah is set to join the Pac-10 schools to form the Pac-12 in 2012.

Need to Know
• When Kentucky and Illinois compete against Northern Illinois on Jan. 8 in Lexington, Ky., both the Wildcats and Illini will do so without permanent head coaches leading their respective squads.

• After Director of Gymnastics Bill Starkell resigned in August, Kim Landrus was named the interim head coach for the Illini in 2011. Landrus served as associate head coach for the four previous seasons after being promoted from assistant coach in 2006.

• Mo Mitchell and Kentucky severed ties in October, and the university tapped assistant coaches Chuck Dickerson and Heather Hite to guide the Wildcats for the remainder of the season. The school will conduct a national search to fill position for the 2011-12 season.

• When longtime Penn State head coach Steve Shephard resigned last spring, his departure opened the door for Jeff Thompson to take over the Nittany Lions following an 11-year stint as Auburn’s head coach. Thompson’s wife Rachelle also joined PSU as the program’s associate head coach. The Nittany Lions will open the season at Alabama on Jan. 7. Auburn then hired former Utah assistant Jeff Graba to replace Thompson. The Tigers start their new chapter at Iowa State on Jan. 7.

• Former University of Georgia gymnast Marcia Newby-Goodman was named a 2011 recipient of the NCAA Top VIII Award, presented annually to eight outstanding student-athletes who have completed their eligibility. The award recognizes outstanding athletic, academic, community service and leadership accomplishments.

• Newby-Goodman, a native of Virginia Beach, Va., was a member of three NCAA Championship teams, earned Academic All-American honors three times, and received the Brad Davis SEC Community Service Postgraduate Scholarship in 2010. She graduated from Georgia last May. There have been several notable recipients over the years, including Drew Brees, Eli and Peyton Manning, Cheryl Miller and Rebecca Lobo.

Quick Hits
NC State was selected the favorite in the East Atlantic Gymnastics League’s preseason coaches’ poll. In-state rival North Carolina won the championship in the eight-team league last season. … Kent State, which will serve as host of the 2011 NCAA Championships at the Wolstein Center in Cleveland, was voted as the preseason favorite to claim the Mid-American Conference title this season. The Golden Flashes welcome back MAC Gymnast of the Year Christine Abou-Mitri. … Cal State Fullerton withdrew from a quad meet at UC Davis scheduled for Jan. 9 due to a slew of injuries suffered last weekend. … The Pac-10 Showcase (Jan. 9) will begin broadcasting on Jan. 13 on FSN’s regional affiliates. In Los Angeles, highlights of the meet will be shown on Jan. 13 at 4 p.m. PT on Prime Ticket and at 6 p.m. PT on Fox Sports West. … Missouri and West Virginia gymnasts may be spotted taking a break at the pool this weekend as they travel to compete at the Cancun Classic on Jan. 7 at the Hilton Cancun Beach & Golf Resort in Cancun, Mexico.