If you’re the University of Georgia women’s gymnastics team, this season you hope everything just stays the same. Or gets even better.
But much has changed since the Gym Dogs won their fifth consecutive team title and star Courtney Kupets romped her way to four individual golds at the NCAA Championships last April. For one thing, Kupets has exhausted her NCAA eligibility and is no longer with the team; neither are Tiffany Tolnay and Abby Stack. Longtime coach Suzanne Yoculan, a legend at Georgia as much as any of her gymnasts, has also departed, preferring to go out at the absolute apex of Georgian gymnastics glory.
This leaves the program in the hands of Yoculan’s longtime assistant Jay Clark, whom she made associate head coach two years ago in anticipation of her departure. The pressure wil be on Clark all season, and comparisons to Yoculan are inevitable, especially if Georgia is not as strong this year as it has been during the past half-decade. There were years under Yoculan where the program was not number one, but those years were pretty few and far between. The Georgia faithful will be expecting a lot of their new head coach.
“It’s kind of like being given the keys to a Ferrari and being told not to wreck it; you still want to drive it, though,” Clark commented to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution about his situation.
One stroke of luck for Georgia: they inked the nation’s best recruit in Shayla Worley, though Worley, who broke her leg at the tail end of the Olympic selection process, did not look like the Kupets replacement Georgia needs to assure its dominance this season. Worley shows a good deal of promise on uneven bars and balance beam, but given her vaulting and tumbling at Georgia’s Sneak Peek last month, she will not be an all-around threat until later in the season at the earliest.
Another is the steadiness of Georgia seniors Courtney McCool and Grace Taylor, who are likely to vie with each other for the NCAA beam title. Georgia’s strongest all-around gymnast at the moment is likely to be energetic sophomore Kat Ding, who hails from Sparks, Nev.
Elsewhere, the usual suspects — Alabama, UCLA, Florida — will be chasing the defending champions. Alabama’s lineup, including sophomore Ashley Priess, junior Kayla Hoffman and seniors Morgan Dennis, Kassi Price and Ricki Lebegern, is one of the strongest in the NCAA, perhaps even better than Georgia’s. The Crimson Tide struggled a bit at the beginning of the season last year before surging past Utah to finish second at the NCAA Championships. This team will only be made stronger by the addition of Becca Alexin, who has potential to be one of the best in the country on uneven bars.
UCLA is poised to make a major breakthrough this season. Senior Anna Li is finally healthy, sophomore Canadian sensations Aisha Gerber and Elise Hopfner-Hibbs are ready to go and, although it won’t directly impact the team until next year, UCLA has already signed three of the best gymansts in North America in Samantha Peszek, Sydney Sawa and Olivia Courtney, all of whom will begin competing in 2011 (a fourth signee, Mattie Larson, plans to defer enrollment until after the 2012 Olympics). Not to mention that everyone’s excited to see the new floor routines choreographed by Bruins coach Valorie Kondos-Field.
UCLA’s star all-arounder Vanessa Zamarripa is starting the season with an injury, which will make Saturday’s opener with Utah more of a nail-biter. Not that Utah isn’t capable, though it is now without Kristina Baskett and Nina Kim, who were team’s backbone in 2009. Look for seniors Annie DeLuzio and Daria Bijak to provide leadership and solid routines, aided by Jamie Deetscreek, Stephanie McAllister and freshman Katelyn Mohr.
For the past few years, Florida has been the school touted as the potential NCAA champion at the beginning of the season. It hasn’t happened yet, but this year’s team has both great experience (in senior Amanda Castillo and junior Alicia Goodwin) and terrific newcomers (former J.O. National Champion Liz Green, British Olympian Marissa King and 2008 U.S. Olympic Trials participent Randy Stageberg, who is set to be a star this season.)
Other top six contenders include LSU, Stanford, Oklahoma, Auburn and budding SEC powerhouse Arkansas.
Week one meet schedule:
Alabama vs. Auburn @ Auburn
Florida vs. Oklahoma @ Oklahoma
Illinois vs. Oregon State, Air Force and Alaska @ Oregon State
Iowa State vs. Wisconsin @ Iowa State
LSU vs. Maryland @ LSU
Michigan State vs. Penn State, West Virginia and Western Michigan @ Michigan State
Missouri vs. Ohio State @ Missouri
Washington vs. Nebraska @ Washington
Arkansas vs. Arizona @ Arkansas
Bowling Green State vs. Michigan and Iowa @ Michigan
Cortland St. vs. Brockport @ Brockport
UCLA vs. Utah @ UCLA
Georgia vs. Stanford @ Georgia
Minnesota vs. Denver @ Minnesota
New Hampshire vs. Rutgers @ Rutgers
S.E. Missouri vs. Illinois-Chicago @ Illinois-Chicago
Texas Woman’s vs. Kentucky @ Kentucky
Wisconsin-Oshkosh vs. Hamline @ Wisconsin
Ball State University vs. Western Michigan @ Western Michigan
UC Davis vs. Cal State Fullerton, San Jose State and Wisconsin-Whitewater @ UC Davis
Central Michigan vs. Illinois State @ Illinois State
Wisconsin-Lacrosse vs. Northern Illinois @ Northern Illinois
BYU vs. Southern Utah @ BYU
Can’t-miss competition of the week: Saturday’s UCLA-Utah matchup, by far. The Utes edged UCLA for the final spot in the Super Six at last year’s NCAA Championships. (The teams were tied after the preliminaries, but Utah won because it had the higher team total when all 24 scores from the first round were tabulated. Normally, only the top five scores on each event count toward the team score.) Fast forward nine months, and the rejuvinated UCLA squad is taking on the team that deprived them of a Super Six berth, on home turf. Redemption, anyone?
Follow Gymnastics Examiner Blythe Lawrence on Twitter at www.twitter.com/GymExaminer.