Georgia big favorite at NCAAs

Published: Thursday, April 20 2006 12:00 a.m. MDT

CORVALLIS, Ore. — Parity in collegiate women's gymnastics is growing — as evidenced by powerful teams UCLA and Stanford that didn't qualify to be here this week.

A number of coaches talked about it at Wednesday afternoon's press conference advancing today's 2006 NCAA women's gymnastics championships, which get under way at 2 p.m. MDT in Oregon State's Gill Coliseum with the first of two six-team sessions.

But even with parity, defending national champion Georgia (21-0) is the big dog on the block, and most teams know it, even if they're not conceding anything because they saw Georgia go from nearly not qualifying for nationals last year to winning the 2005 NCAA title.

Georgia coach Suzanne Yoculan — she who makes the kind of salary some college football coaches wish they could, reportedly $220,000 a year — puts her team at the top of the heap and says, "Georgia has established itself as a good team. For Georgia, good is not enough. We are striving for perfection."

Despite being unbeaten, her team hasn't hit as well as she says it can.

"I do feel like we should win this," Yoculan said. "I believe we will win this."

But that's how a coach should feel, she said.

"It doesn't mean I don't think somebody could beat us," she said.

That's why it's a competition, said Oregon State coach Tanya Chaplin, whose team went to the West Regional at Stanford two weeks ago and pulled one of the big upsets by knocking the Cardinal, a top 10 team, out of the postseason.

"You never know when a door is going to open," Chaplin said.

Competing with Utah in the afternoon session today are Alabama, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Michigan and Louisiana State. In the evening session with Oregon State are Georgia, Iowa State, Florida, Arizona State and Arkansas.

The top three teams from each session advance to Friday night's Super Six team championships. The individual all-around championship will be decided in today's sessions, and the top four from each session, plus ties, advance to Saturday night's individual-event championships.

"We feel like there's just a lot of parity and a lot of even-ness, and if we have a good, focused competition, I think it can be anybody's prize to have," said LSU coach D-D Breaux, whose team suffered a rough beginning with last fall's hurricanes, a situation that all-arounder April Burkholder said makes the Tigers stronger.

"I definitely believe that they (Georgia) are the most talented team," said Alabama coach Sarah Patterson. "But I do believe anything can happen. If you put it down on paper, sure, they're the hands-down favorite."

Patterson, who modeled her Alabama program after Utah's some 27 years back, took time in the press conference to note that this is the 25th anniversary of NCAA-sponsored women's championships, and Ute coach Greg Marsden is the only coach to have taken his team to every one of them.

Marsden also took the Utes to six nationals prior to that, when the AIAW was the women's governing body. His Utes have qualified for nationals every year since his very first season. They were 10th the first year (1976), ninth in 1977 and have never been lower than seventh since then. His teams have won one AIAW title and nine NCAA championships.

Georgia seeks its seventh title. UCLA has five, Alabama four, and no other team has ever won since that first NCAA championship at Utah in 1982.

As some of the power-conference football schools join up in gymnastics — Arkansas started its program four years ago; Texas and some Southeastern Conference schools are reportedly close to beginning teams — coaches see the day coming soon when somebody else jumps into that title picture.

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