In a sport known for evolution and revolutions, there has been a tremendous amount of consistency in women’s college gymnastics. Only six teams (Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Oklahoma, UCLA, Utah) have won an NCAA title since the creation of the event in 1982. The 34th incarnation begins Friday in Fort Worth, Texas when twelve teams will compete for the chance to be champions.
The top three teams in each of Friday’s sessions advance to the NCAA Super Six on Saturday night. The winner of the Super Six is the NCAA champion. The top four competitors on each event in Friday’s sessions advance to the NCAA Individual Event finals on Sunday. The all-around champion is determined Friday during the semifinal round.
Florida had rare falls on beam to finish a disappointing third at SEC Championships but rebounded to win their regional. The defending co-champions will go for a three-peat, something only Utah (1982-86) and Georgia (2005-2009) have accomplished.
“Well, we’re not going in there with that mindset,” head coach Rhonda Faehn said.
“We’re not going to be adding that extra pressure onto this team. This team is completely different, and I’ve said that year in and year out, that every team has to earn not just the championship, but they have to earn their performance at the championship.
"And so, this is a new group and I know that they’re excited to get out there and to get acclimated on the practice day and to focus only on the first day of competition and advancing just to be able to give ourselves that chance to be able to try and challenge to win that title. Instead of focusing on the end result, we’re just taking it step-by-step and focusing on our journey.”
Despite the retirement of legendary coach Sarah Patterson last summer, Alabama has continued to chug along. Longtime assistant Dana Duckworth took over this season and the 2012 national champs won the SEC title and a NCAA-best 30th regional title in a row.
Since the championships went from ten teams to twelve in 1987, Georgia has finished in the top 6 every year but three. No team has won more titles (10), but the last one came in 2009. This year’s squad is dominated by underclassmen, but the team finally gelled when it mattered to win the Berkeley Regional.
Rounding out the SEC contingent is LSU and Auburn. LSU won its regional for the third consecutive year and is making its 26th championship appearance. Meanwhile, Auburn is making just its fourth trip to the championships and its first appearance since 2003.
“Well, I think the SEC ended up with all of our members in the top 25, which I think is a statement to how tough the league is,” Auburn head coach Jeff Graba said. “I do think it prepares us really well because you don’t really get a week off and it’s great environments at home and on the road.
"I think it says something about what we do for two and a half months to get ready for these few meets, and I do think it helps prepare us for these top-end championship meets. So, I’m excited. I think the SEC is in a really good spot right now and it’s only getting better.”
While the SEC has dominated this event, there are other contenders to the throne.
Oklahoma joined the elite champions club with its first title in 2014, sharing the crown with Florida -- the first tie in championship history. The Sooners enter with the highest qualifying score and three regional event champions, but oddly enough, no all-around competitors. The team’s strength is the beam, boasting five regular season All-Americans in the event and the nation’s only perfect 10.0.
UCLA is the SEC streak-buster, winning its sixth NCAA title in 2010. It also won four of the five titles from 2000-2004 before this most recent SEC run. The Bruins, who posted their second-best score of the season in winning the Columbus Regional, boast strong leadership from redshirt senior and 2008 Olympian Samantha Peszek as well as a steady hand from head coach Valorie Kondos Field who is in her 25th season at the helm.
Utah is the only school to qualify for every championship and is led by the winningest coach in college gymnastics Greg Marsden who is in his 40th year at the helm. Utah won the first five NCAA titles and went on to win four more, but the Utes haven’t won it all since 1995. Despite winning the Pac-12 Championships, a poor performance on beam resulted in a second-place finish at the Berkeley Regional. They will find out quickly how well they’ve recovered -- beam is their opening rotation.
Rounding out the competition are Michigan, Nebraska, Oregon State and Stanford. None won its regional, but all four have made multiple appearances in the championships. For each of these schools it’s not if, but when, one will take home a title.
“The playing field has become very level and any of the six teams that end up qualifying to the Super 6 could in fact win a championship on that given night,” Michigan head coach Bev Plocki said.
“I think a lot of it has to do with your team believing that they’re capable of breaking through that glass ceiling and being able to win that championship because I think that in order for the judges to [give scores] they need to see that confidence. They need to see that performance level from the athletes, and I think that that directly impacts and reflects the judging of their events.
“I think sometimes a lot of it is a self-imposed feeling that it’s just a select group that can do it. So, kind of breaking through that barrier of believing that you are capable of going out there and doing that because the talent, like I said, is very balanced across the teams, but it’s the ability to go and perform at the best of your ability and break through that ceiling.”