Thursday, May 23

After season of valleys, gym reaches peak


Monday, April 29, 1996

UCLA saves best for last with second place at NCAAsBy Esther
Hui

Daily Bruin Staff

When UCLA women’s gymnastics coach Valorie Kondos said she
thought the team would peak at the end of the season, she had no
idea how accurate her forecast would be.

The Bruins put in the performance of a lifetime Friday night,
setting a new NCAA beam record (49.50) and breaking the school
record by a full point (197.475) to place second to Alabama
(198.025) in the NCAA Championships. Defending champion Utah tied
for third with Georgia scoring 196.775.

"I didn’t know what to expect," Kondos said. "They haven’t put
it together all season, but I knew they had the potential. We had
found the form that would work for them at West Regionals, which
was less hype. They’re phenomenal, phenomenal athletes."

After falling as low as 19th in the country and placing a
disappointing fourth at Pac-10′s, UCLA was not expected to
challenge the traditional top three gymnastics powerhouses of
Alabama, Georgia and Utah. Instead, they enjoyed their best finish
since 1989.

"Nobody had been considering us all season, because we hadn’t
been doing anything all season," Stella Umeh said, who competed
despite a broken bone in her right foot and a relapse of an ear
infection. "But we came out like wildfire. The whole weekend was
just great, exactly what we’d been working for."

The evening boded well for the Bruins from the beginning, when
Andrea Fong nailed her first vault for a 9.80, UCLA’s lowest
counting score on the event. Amy Smith vaulted a 9.90, and Leah
Homma and Dee Fischer finished off the event both with 9.95s for a
season-high team total of 49.450, and the early second place in the
competition. Alabama led by .025 after totalling a 49.475 on
bars.

On bars, Luisa Portocarrero began with a 9.775, Umeh swung a
9.90 and Homma finished the event with a 9.950. The event gave the
Bruins a .075 lead over the Crimson Tide, who scored a 49.150 on
beam.

UCLA moved to beam, a make-or-break event for the Bruins all
season. Susie Erickson opened with a personal-best 9.850, which
ended up being dropped after UCLA’s most consistent display of beam
work this season. Corinne Chee, Portocarrero and Umeh all scored
9.90s, with Homma leading the team with a 9.925.

Alabama regained the lead with a strong floor set that included
a 10.00 by eventual floor champion Kim Kell, and a set up for the
showdown on the last event: Bruins on floor and Crimson Tide on
vault, their strongest event.

UCLA began with a 9.825 from Chee and also had a 9.90 from Amy
Smith and a 9.925 from Homma, but when the first gymnast from
Alabama Merritt Booth nailed both vaults for a 9.925, Kondos knew
it was over. The Crimson Tide went on to score two 9.90s, a 9.950
and two 10.0s for a near-flawless 49.775.

"We absolutely did not (think about Alabama)," Umeh said. "I
looked over at them on vault and saw them getting 10s, but it
didn’t upset me. I was happy for them, they were doing great
gymnastics."

Kondos earned NCAA Coach of the Year. Umeh garnered first-team
All-American honors on bars and placed second on beam, Chee and
Portocarrero earned first-team All-American honors on beam.
Freshman Kiralee Hayashi ended her first NCAA championships with a
personal-best all-around of 39.40.

For Homma, the evening was a sweet answer to a disappointing
beam performance Thursday night, when she fell to drop out of the
running for an all-around medal. Homma recorded the top Bruin score
on each of the four events, setting a personal best and school
record with a 39.750 in the all-around.

"They just went in and believed in themselves," said student
assistant coach Megan Fenton. "Corinne and Leah said to me
afterwards, it wasn’t a question of whether or not they were going
to fall, it was a question of hitting. Everyone contributed, there
isn’t anyone on our team who shouldn’t feel proud for the second
place."

JUSTIN WARREN/Daily Bruin

Kiralee Hayashi scored a personal-best in the all-around.

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