Ute gymnasts will face stiff challenges in title quest

Published: Wednesday, April 20 2005 12:00 a.m. MDT

AUBURN, Ala. — It's been 10 years since the most decorated collegiate women's gymnastics team won a national championship, and the University of Utah's slogan for this week's campaign reflect that, noting it's time for another.

In the way, however, is an ever-growing list of contenders to the No. 1-ranked Utes and to two-time defending NCAA champion UCLA as well as the only other teams to have ever won NCAA team titles — Georgia and Alabama.

By all accounts, Louisiana State may finally have the wherewithal to take the title when the 2005 NCAA Championships are contested Thursday and Friday (individual event championships are Saturday) at Auburn University.

The Tigers have ranked No. 1 at times this season for the first time in history. They finished the regular season ranked third by Regional Qualifying Score, but they had the highest score of the 36 teams in region championships, a season high of 197.125 to 197.025 for second-ranked UCLA and 196.80 by No. 1 Utah, which counted a beam fall.

Those three plus Alabama, Florida and surging Michigan won regional championships. Region runners-up were Brigham Young, second to Utah in the North Central Regional to qualify for these championships, as well as Nebraska, Iowa State, Oklahoma, Penn State and Georgia.

Those 12 schools make up the field that begins team preliminaries Thursday.

Utah, 12-2 in the regular season, is in the afternoon session of preliminaries beginning at noon MDT Thursday, along with LSU, Michigan, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Penn State.

In Thursday's preliminary evening session with BYU, 10-6, starting at 6 MDT, are UCLA, Alabama, Florida, Iowa State and Georgia. Rotating with Iowa State will be Southern Utah University at-large all-arounder Leah Sakhitab.

The top three teams from each session advance to Friday's 6 p.m. MDT Super Six national championships. Utah has finished sixth the last two years with difficulties on uneven bars, where it starts Thursday.

The individual all-around championship will be decided by Thursday's competition, as will the qualifiers for event finals on Saturday night — the top four plus ties from each session Thursday.

LSU, 25-4 and the newcomer to actual title-contention status, though it is usually a qualifier to nationals, has had meets this season in which it stuck not just landings but every skill. Execution like that could go a long way toward winning a championship. The Tigers tied with Utah and UCLA for the highest regular-season score in the country this year, 197.85, and relies on all-arounders April Burkholder (39.60 season high) and Ashley Clare-Keaney (39.525).

"They're for real," said Utah coach Greg Marsden, whose 2005 team looks like it's more "for real" than it has been in several years as well. The Tigers are also "very consistent," Marsden observes.

Marsden is wary of all Southeastern Conference teams — Alabama, Georgia, LSU and Florida — because this is the heart of SEC country, and fans of those four schools have easy access to Auburn.

Georgia, 19-4, started slowly but built to a good season — defeating Utah, UCLA, LSU and Alabama in the regular season — before suffering three falls on beam at the Southeast Regional April 9. That was enough for coach Suzanne Yoculan to give a well-publicized pep talk to her young team that finished the regular season ranked fifth. Their highest score of the season was 197.275 on Feb. 25, and the Gym Dogs are led by all-arounders Katie Heenan (39.625), Kelsy Ericson (39.55) and Ashley Kupets (39.55).

Alabama, 11-3, hit its season high of 197.175 on Jan. 21 but has stayed in the top five all season behind all-arounders Ashley Miles (39.675 high) and Terin Humphrey (39.575).

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