Nebraska Coach Rick Walton yawned as he came into Thursday's press conference for the NCAA women's gymnastics championships that will take place Friday night with individual-event finals Saturday night. Walton then wore to practice a team T-shirt that read "Mr. Personality" on the back.
Both were hardly subtle references to comments made about him - and several other teams and coaches - by Georgia Coach Suzanne Yoculan in an Athens newspaper Wednesday.It was only a short article, but it's the talk of the gymnastics community that is gathered for the national championships, and it will take competition tonight to find out whether the comments ignited those being talked about or whether it suppressed them and fired Georgia.
What was said about Utah was nice, so the Utes have no extra incentive.
Yoculan said Walton, a former Georgia coach, had no personality and fourth-seeded Nebraska has no leadership.
The paper quoted Yoculan as saying she'd heard top-seeded UCLA - certainly the favorite team here - is burnt out, and everyone in town took it to mean Yoculan says UCLA's burnt out. "It says I've heard they didn't have the same fire in regionals," Yoculan retiterated in the press conference, but it certainly hit UCLA Coach Jerry Tomlinson the other way.
"We're on fire; we're not burnt out," he said. Said UCLA all-arounder Tanya Service, "It took everyone by surprise because we had not heard anything of the sort before, and we're ready to show we're not burnt out."
Other comments were perhaps true, that defending champion and No. 2 seed Alabama's hurting with injuries and that No. 6 Cal State-Fullerton is just glad to be back at the championships after missing two years.
Yoculan pegged No. 3 seed Utah and No. 5 Georgia as her best bets to win tonight's team championship.
She said she was merely trying to illustrate that everyone has had some problems this season and they're so close that emotion will make the difference.
And Yoculan did inject some emotion into the pre-meet atmosphere.
"I feel emotion will make the difference," says Yoculan, whose "Gym Dogs" won the NCAA title at Utah two years ago, then dropped out of the picture last season.
"If UCLA has the emotion, they'll win hands down," she added.
Most of the other coaches seem willing to give UCLA the nod also, indicating it might take a Bruin miss for somebody else to win. The Bruins, after all, have the national record of 195.20 on their side.
Utah Coach Greg Marsden, whose teams won six national championships and finished second each of the last two years, says UCLA probably learned a lot from the last two championship meets. They were ranked first but finished third two years ago and ranked in the bottom six last year but finished third. "Their kids have learned. They're mature. That bodes well for their chances," he says. "Things look good for UCLA right now.
"Alabama," says Marsden, "is capable of staying with UCLA, despite the loss of top all-arounder Marie Robbins and only partial use of senior Kelly Good because of injuries. Marsden adds of Nebraska, "Don't count them out," remembering how close the 'Huskers came at the regional when the Utes won by .4 and both teams had a poor event.
Marsden says Utah is the country's most consistent team this season. Eleven scores of 190+ would agree with him. The Utes don't have the overpowering amount of difficulty in their routines that UCLA does, but they have enough. They'll try to do what they know they can do and not beat themselves. "If that's not good enough to win, then UCLA or Alabama or somebody else will win," Marsden says.
Yoculan, a complete believer in going all-out all the time, says UCLA has so much difficulty that current college rules can't properly reward it. "Until the rules change (next year), I don't know how much is to your advantage," she says. But a healthy Georgia will go full-out, too.
"Being conservative," says Georgia all-America Lucy Wener, "is not in the Georgia books."
Despite being defending champ, Alabama will put a young team of four freshmen, three sophomores and two juniors on the floor because of injuries to Robbins and Good. "If not for their leadership," says Coach Sarah Patterson about Robbins and Good, "I don't think we'd have made it through the season.
"It's a unique experience being defending national champions. I hope I can do it again some time," says Patterson, who sees "six, seven or eight teams" that could possibly win tonight.
It's generally agreed a score of 192+ will be necessary to win.