Saturday, January 25

Final test for toughened UCLA gymnastics team lies ahead at NCAAs

UCLA has dealt with several injuries this season. The Bruins hope to take advantage of competing in Pauley Pavilion, where they won the 2004 NCAA championship.

UCLA has dealt with several injuries this season. The Bruins hope to take advantage of competing in Pauley Pavilion, where they won the 2004 NCAA championship. Lauren Nipper / Daily Bruin

Women's gymnastics

NCAA Championships
Today to Sunday

Pauley Pavilion
No TV info

“Individual squares of a trampoline” was how coach Valorie Kondos Field described her gymnasts at the beginning of the year. They had the individual talent necessary to win a championship but, as a team, they were disjointed and fragmented.

“Their job this year was to find a way to make each square in that trampoline bed reach out to other squares and make a really tight, strong bed,” Kondos Field said.

But even before the Bruins had the chance to interweave these individual patches together, holes sprung up.

The first was a gaping tear right in the center of the trampoline bed.

When 2011 NCAA balance beam champion and 2008 Olympian Samantha Peszek tore her right Achilles tendon in practice in December, the Bruins lost one of their highest-scoring performers before the season even started.

Sophomore Mattie Larson, a world champion in 2010, went down with a knee injury in March and freshman Christine Peng-Peng Lee, expected to contribute immediately, tore ligaments in her knee before the 2012 Olympics.

“That is like having three Kobe Bryants out,” Kondos Field said.

“What we have been able to accomplish with the breadth of this team is remarkable. … From a coaching perspective, we have had the best coaching year in our experience.”

The season has been a constant process of adjustment, with UCLA continuously searching for ways to patch up the holes created by injury. Seniors Kaelie Baer and Alyssa Pritchett, a walk-on, have become staples in the lineup.

Pritchett has become one of UCLA’s most consistent performers on floor, earning a 9.9 or higher in the Bruins’ last four meets.

“It really gives confidence to everybody on our team that they can come in and contribute,” said senior Lichelle Wong.

For the most part, the Bruins have found a way to stay competitive. They have scored above 197 in five meets this year, with the majority of those scores coming in the latter part of the season.

It just might not be enough to make a serious run at the national championship. No. 1 seed Florida and No. 2 Oklahoma have both topped 198 this season and are loaded with healthy talent.

“If the team that is the healthiest has the meet of their life, they will win. But when you get to that last night, there are so many other things that come into play. So you never know,” said Kondos Field, who is confident her team can advance to the NCAA Super Six Team Finals.

When it comes to winning a seventh national championship, she believes that other teams will need to make mistakes in order for UCLA to sneak in for the title. Associate coach Chris Waller disagrees.

“I think they are peaking at the right time and that there is a lot to be said for the magic of Pauley,” Waller said.

This is the fourth time Pauley Pavilion has hosted the gymnastics championships.

The last time was in 2004, when the Bruins won their fifth NCAA title and set a Super Six record of 198.125.

“We were invincible. We were the dream team then. We were extremely talented and we were healthy,” Kondos Field said of the squad that featured six-time All-American Jeanette Antolin and Olympian Kristen Maloney.

In 2004, the team coasted to its national title. This year, the Bruins are ready to scratch and claw their way into contention.

“I still feel like the best is yet to come with this team. We are all at peace with our gymnastics,” senior Vanessa Zamarripa said. “I feel like we are going to go out there and kill it. There is going to be blood on the floor … and it won’t be ours.”

A couple days before the final competition of her collegiate career, Zamarripa’s faith in her team is unwavering.

She believes that the team’s foundation is strong; the individual squares of the team’s trampoline have come together in a solid bed.

Whether the trampoline is strong enough to endure this weekend remains to be seen.

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