Kelly Lambert, Associated Press
ATHENS, Ga. Not only is meet host Georgia using "Back 4 More" as its slogan as it chases its fourth straight NCAA women's gymnastics team championship tonight and Friday at its own Stegeman Coliseum.
It is looking to tie the most successful collegiate program ever the University of Utah with a ninth NCAA title.
Utah owns those nine NCAA championships and one from the AIAW, which was the sanctioning body until the NCAA took over in 1982.
The Utes have the wherewithal to annex their 11th national title and 10th NCAA title, led by senior Ashley Postell, the nation's top-ranked all-arounder, beamwalker and vaulter. They are the fifth seed in these championships that start with team preliminaries at 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. MDT today. Utah and Georgia are in the evening session.
"As good a chance as anybody," Ute coach Greg Marsden said Wednesday after his team went through its afternoon warmups. "Everything seems to be going well. Everyone seems to be relaxed. Things went well today."
Postell a favorite to win today's all-around said the Utes practiced well, and she warmed up her double Arabian for floor, but the team's commitment is qualifying today for the Super Six and the chance to compete for its first championship since 1995, which was also at Georgia.
In Wednesday's press conference, Marsden noted it's the only time he can remember in his 33 years having a team go through every competition leading up to nationals without having to count a fall.
But after watching a number of the 12 teams here warm up, Marsden was convinced it's a very strong field. No. 1-ranked, No. 1-seeded Georgia was the favorite, but Florida, Alabama, LSU, UCLA, Michigan, Stanford and the Utes at least all think they've got as good a shot as anyone. Oregon State, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Denver are on the rise, too.
"Everyone looked great," Marsden said after seeing probably two-thirds of the teams practice Wednesday. "You just don't get here without a good team."
Georgia coach Suzanne Yoculan said the field is so strong that just getting through today's prelims carries such pressure it will be like being in the Super Six finals two straight days.
"Get those heels out Thursday," the ultra-competitive coach known for her spike-heeled fashion warned the other coaches.
But Georgia is so strong, it has hardly missed two-time NCAA champion Courtney Kupets and won the Northeast Regional two weeks ago with the nation's best regional score, 197.775. Florida took the Southeast at home with 197.525, LSU won the Central at home at 197.625, Alabama won the South Central at Oklahoma with 197.30, Oregon State had 197.10 in winning the West, and Utah won the North Central at 196.95.
Only Utah (9), Georgia (8), UCLA (5) and Alabama (4) have ever won NCAA team titles. Utah and UCLA have won titles at Georgia; Georgia has won at home only once, in 1989, the first time it hosted.
Yoculan whose namecard Wednesday at the press conference in her own building, right next to the Suzanne Yoculan Training Facility, was mispelled as "Yucolan," annoying her once it was pointed out heard UCLA coach Valorie Kondos-Field brag at the press conference that she'd outcoached Yoculan the last time the championships were in Athens.
"She outcoached me," Yoculan said. "That's not going to happen again.
"We're ready,' said Yoculan, sounding like she was predicting victory but saying she wasn't guaranteeing victory like she has in the past, partly because of regular-season losses at Utah and Michigan and the loss of Kupets.
"We're peaking now, and this is the time that every coach likes to peak. Our conference and individual goals were reached, and our goals are going to culminate here in Athens."
Yoculan barbed Marsden, saying the pressure of having the No. 1 seed at home is difficult and asking if Utah was No. 1 when it hosted last year and finished second. (Utah was No. 2 last year with Florida the No. 1 seed and Georgia No. 3.) Yoculan then said it's easier to win from a No. 5 seed because expectations are less. Utah, of course, is the No. 5 seed another dig.
"Tell her I'd sure trade places with her," Marsden said of the Nos. 1 and 5 seeds.
She also ran with a Marsden comment about the Southeast Conference which has five of the 12 teams in this field. He said he appreciates it that the SEC is allowing the outsiders to compete in "the second round of the SEC championships."
She said SEC teams are more prepared for a championship at Stegeman because SEC conference meets "are so incredibly intense" so they are used to that sort of environment.
Marsden, though, said he doesn't see his team melting down. "We've intentionally tried to put ourselves in high-pressure situations," though he conceded, "Their advantage is location, location, location."
The Utes will open tonight's competition with the bye before bars, and its first event will be bars, with senior Jessica Duke leading off, a slight change from regionals, when sophomore Jamie Deetscreek was first.
"Jess has been a rock for us all year; we're at nationals. She really relishes that position and is excited about playing that role," Marsden said.
Other changes will see senior Katie Kivisto back in the floor lineup, junior Nina Kim back from injury as second up in the bars lineup and starting the Ute vault as Marsden goes with experience.
This NCAA championships will be the first since 2005 at Auburn to be held on the podium, like international meets. The podium is now mandated by the NCAA, meaning Utah may not host again despite its huge attendance, because the Huntsman Center floor isn't big enough.So the Utes will have to get used to competing on the road, where this season they actually had a better average than in home meets.
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