Alabama's coaches played a hunch that paid off early, and there was just no catching the Tide on this night in its home arena in the NCAA women's gymnastics championships.
Shea McFall had vaulted only three times this season because she was coming back from injury, but coaches Sarah and David Patterson had a feeling and stuck her into the lineup anyway Friday night. The junior hit 9.775, more than half a point above her average, Alabama totaled a school record 49.075 in its first event, and the Tide never looked back on the way to a championship-meet record total of 195.125 and its second NCAA title in four years.Meanwhile, University of Utah, which started on bars, had to watch one of its most consistent people, Missy Marlowe, go from near-perfection to a season-low 9.7 on her best event with a couple of steps on the dismount.
"I don't have any kind of excuse; I rarely stick that dismount," said Marlowe of the double-pike flyaway.
"Dismounts aren't my forte," said Marlowe, who has had an NCAA-record two 10.0s on bars this season and seemed headed for another until she alighted. "I felt like that, but I don't know if it (the dismount miss) was .3 bad."
The net result put the Utes behind by about half a point from the opening round, and the defending champions wound up having to fend off Georgia to take second place.
Utah totaled 194.375 but was only .025 ahead ofthe Bulldogs going into their final events - Utah on vault and Georgia on beam. Georgia counted several falls and dropped a full point behind, totaling 193.375.
"We had a good meet, and Alabama had a great meet," said Ute Coach Greg Marsden. "That's what it's all about."
"When they got the lead, we made a couple of mistakes on bars and they maintained. We could never make up from that point."
Oregon State placed fourth at 192.350, and Penn State took fifth, 190.95.
Brigham Young moved up one from its ninth-place seeding to take eighth (187.7), but Utah State dropped from the 11th seed to 12th place with a season-low 185.95.
The all-around title went to Georgia's Hope Spivey with an NCAA-record 39.525, breaking the record Marlowe held for several months. Alabama's Dee Dee Foster took second at 39.425, Marlowe took third at 39.175, Utah's Kristen Kenoyer was fourth at 39.1 and Ute Shelly Schaerrer placed sixth at 38.875.
Both Marlowe and Schaerrer missed making tonight's individual-event finals in their best events, Marlowe on bars and Schaerrer on floor exercise because she took steps out of bounds on a tumbling pass.
Schaerrer, however, tied for third on bars and will make the finals in that, while Marlowe qualified for the finals with a tie for first on beam and a third place on floor. Kenoyer makes the finals on floor (she was fourth), beam (sixth and bars (tied for seventh). Sophomore Tracy Richard made the floor finals, tied for eighth.
No one from BYU or USU advanced.
Sarah Patterson said she'd always envied Utah for winning championships on its home floor - they won four of their seven titles in Utah - and said she envied Georgia when it won at home, only the second team to ever do it.
"Tonight was a dream come true," said Patterson.
"Alabama took full advantage of being comfortable," said Marsden. "Alabama did a tremendous job running the championships and on the floor. They deserve credit for hosting a great event and taking advantage of a special event. I'm happy for them in that sense."
Alabama had not been a good vault team most of the season, mainly because old injuries took time to round into shape - like McFall's. The Tide scored 48.45 in the Central Regional two weeks ago, its best of the season, but it was spectacular Friday. Its vault total was the best event score of the night for anyone.
Marsden said he was shocked at first by some of the low scores his team got, particularly on beam, but after he watched some other routines, "I felt the judges were applying the scores fairly throughout and kept the scores down so they had someplace to go," he said.
For BYU and USU, whether they went into it laid back or full of awe didn't seem to make much difference. It was the first time at the NCAA championships for both, and they showed it.
"We're learning, we're chipping away at it," said BYU Coach Brad Cattermole, whose team - like the USU team of Coach Ray Corn - suffered through inelegance at best and falls at worst.
"Any time you get into something the first time, you never know what to expect," said Cattermole. "Balance beam got under our skin."
BYU senior Marianne Squires finished with 37.65 all-around, including only the second fall of her career on bars. Korie Jackman totaled 37.725 and McAdam 37.6.
Utah State, too, was troubled by beam. "We started with vault, and we vaulted extremely well," said Corn, noting the Aggies were the first team in the competition on vault and the scores were low - as he said they should be in nationals. "The first two rotations we did well. I was happy after two events," said Corn.
Then came beam and three falls, two of which counted. "Just flat nerves," he said.
Like Cattermole, Corn considered it a good learning experience, and he got one of the things he'd talked about most - a look in the eyes of his gymnasts once they were done with the meet. He'd said Thursday that the look in their eyes - if they'd want to go on - would be his sign. "I got the look I was looking for," he said. "They were a little overwhelmed, but so were other teams.
"We'll be back again and do a better job next time," Corn said.