Five questions for NCAA gymnastics
The question of who has the best NCAA women's gymnastics program in the country will begin to be settled Friday night as the 2014 NCAA gymnastics championships get underway in Birmingham, Ala.
Twelve teams have qualified, and six will compete in each semifinal session, which also serves as the women's all-around final. The team final is the marquee event, and the top three teams from each semi advance to Saturday's Super Six team final. Event finals, a spotlight for the specialists, will take place on Sunday.
Going into this year's championships, here are our five burning questions:
Can Florida do it again?
When the University of Florida won the 2013 NCAA championships, the Gators joined one of the most exclusive clubs in college sports. During the past 32 years, only five schools -- Georgia, Utah, Alabama, UCLA and now Florida -- have won a team title. Not a whole lot has changed: In 2014, the Big Five -- plus upstarts Oklahoma and LSU -- are back gunning for the Super Six.
Florida still seems to have the advantage, with a heavily experienced roster that includes 2008 Olympian Bridget Sloan and former national team members from the U.S., Canada and Spain. The Gators posted the NCAA's highest regular-season score, 198.325, last month. LSU, however, tied the mark at home in Baton Rouge during the NCAA regional championships two weeks ago. Though scoring can't necessarily be compared at different competitions, it was well ahead of Florida's 197.05 at the University Park Regional in Pennsylvania.
Big 12 champions Oklahoma, meanwhile, is the perennial bridesmaid: The Sooners have been runner-up in the Super Six twice during the past five years, including last season. Alabama, the winner in 2011 and 2012, also can't be counted out.
No matter what, someone is going to be disappointed early: UCLA, Utah, Alabama and Florida will compete in the Friday evening semifinal; only three can advance.
Will home court help Alabama?
With Florida and LSU in the spotlight, Alabama is being painted as something of a sleeper candidate for the title. But the Crimson Tide shouldn't be written off. Tide gymnasts brought longtime head coach Sarah Patterson her 1,000th win at regionals this year, and with the championships held in Birmingham, Alabama will get a big boost from a boisterous home crowd. The team's home meets have been known to sell out, and Patterson no doubt would be delighted to see win No. 1,001 come in that setting.
Can Bridget Sloan be beaten?
The individual all-around competition may be a battle between two former Olympic teammates. Sloan, Florida's showstopping sophomore, is the defending champion, while UCLA redshirt junior Samantha Peszek has established herself as a title hopeful as well. The two trained together in Indianapolis during their elite days, and both competed on the silver-medal-winning U.S. team at the 2008 Olympics. But they have yet to go head-to-head at an NCAA championship meet. An Achilles tear cost Peszek her 2013 season, and she watched from the sideline as Sloan dominated. Both are superstars on their team and have the ability to hit near-perfect routines when it counts most.
Also in the hunt for the women's all-around will be Florida junior Kytra Hunter, the 2012 all-around champion, and LSU junior Rheagan Courville, who has been at the heart of the Tigers' recent success.
Can Georgia get its groove back?
Under coach Suzanne Yoculan and 2004 Olympic medalist Courtney Kupets, the Gym Dogs built a dynasty during the mid-2000s with five straight national titles. It didn't last: Yoculan retired, Kupets graduated, and the team has not been the same since. After a few embarrassing seasons by Georgia gymnastics standards (one in which the team didn't make it past regionals), second-year head coach Danna Durante has started a turnaround. It may be too little, too soon to call No. 6 Georgia a title contender again, but if sophomores Brittany Rogers (a 2012 Olympian for Canada) and Brandie Jay can lead their team to a podium finish, it would be the first time in the five years since Yoculan's retirement.
Utes never say die
OK, that's a statement, but it sums up the attitude of Pac-12 champions Utah, who surprised Stanford and UCLA to win the conference championships after a season in which the team struggled to find consistency. No. 5 Utah rolled on to regionals and again placed first to qualify for the championship round.
The Utes used to be the winningest team in the NCAA, but they haven't earned the national crown since the mid-'90s, so this resurgence hasn't gone unnoticed by the Utah fan base. This year, the team will be relying heavily on all-around hopeful Georgia Dabritz, who has one of the best bar routines in the competition -- made all the more impressive since she performs without the traditionally worn handgrips. They'll also need Pac-12 all-around champion Tory Wilson and redshirt junior Corrie Lothrop for clutch performances.
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