Coaches expect tough NCAA women's gymnastics meet

JOHN ZENOR AP Sports Writer Published:

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) -- The NCAA gymnastics championships will pit four past national champs against each other, including 2013 winner Florida and longtime powerhouses UCLA, Utah and Alabama.

And that's just the evening session of the semifinals. At least one former champion won't make the cut Friday night for the next day's finals.

"I think it will probably be the most competitive preliminary in the history of NCAA gymnastics," Crimson Tide coach Sarah Patterson said.

The top three teams from each session will compete for the championship on Saturday night. The Gators arrive as the top-ranked team a year after capturing their first national title to end Southeastern Conference rival Alabama's two-year run at the top.

The six teams competing in the second semifinal session have combined to claim the last four titles and 22 overall, even with 10-time champion Georgia going in the afternoon.

The top three teams from each session advance to Saturday night's championship round. The individual event competition is Sunday.

"This championship, I feel, from top to bottom is really incredible, the level of teams and just everyone is really strong and peaking at the right time," Gators coach Rhonda Faehn said. "It's going to be so exciting. It is going to be, for the fans out there, some of the best gymnastics this entire year and all in one place. You can't get any better than that."

Penn State and Nebraska also compete Friday night. Georgia will go against LSU, Oklahoma, Stanford, Michigan and Illinois in the afternoon.

The Gators are led by 2008 U.S. Olympian and defending NCAA all-around champion Bridget Sloan, who is ranked No. 1 in the all-around, vault and balance beam.

The sophomore won the 2009 world all-around title and is the only gymnast in the nation to earn first-team All-America honors in all five events.

UCLA's Samantha Peszek also was a member of the 2008 silver medal-winning team. She missed last season with a torn Achilles tendon.

UCLA coach Valorie Kondos-Field said Peszek hasn't decided whether to return as a fifth-year senior, so this is potentially her college finale.

Kondos-Field said doing hot yoga four times a week has helped Pescek, part of the 2007 world championship team.

"She is finally healthy and she hasn't been this healthy in about seven years," the coach said. "So, she's learned that she doesn't have to do quantity. She takes extremely good care of her body. You know when athletes (take) that professional mindset and everything they do is geared toward being the best athlete they can be? That's what Sammi's doing now."

The SEC, whose headquarters are down the street from the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex, will have a contingent of contenders. Nobody has won more national titles than Georgia.

LSU had the highest regional score, at 198.325 in Baton Rouge. Florida has posted four of the top nine team totals this season.

Led by seniors Kim Jacob and Diandra Milliner, Alabama will have the home team advantage in seeking its seventh title.

The Tide has three titles and a second-place finish the previous times the championships were held in the state.

"We keep saying it's just like another home meet, so hopefully we'll get that kind of crowd," said Milliner, the defending NCAA vault champion.

Oklahoma coach K.J. Kindler thinks this field stands out from past seasons.

"This is an extremely deep group this year," Kindler said. "There are amazing gymnasts on every team. Teams are capable of putting up 197s, 198s. You're going to see some of the best that you've seen in many, many years, in my opinion."